Women cultivate and preserve heritage through exquisite green tea production

Ugyen C Penjor

In Trongsa, Samdrupcholing transforms into a sleepy village during this season, with its verdant tea gardens basking in the spring’s gentle warmth. The village stirs into life in April when the locals, mostly women, dive into the vibrant hustle of the tea plantations. As the morning sun casts its glow, a group of women gathers, their meeting with a visiting official infused with light-hearted chatter and laughter.

The women of Samdrupcholing form the pillar of the Samdrupcholing Ngoja Tshonglay Detshen, a cooperative known for crafting an exquisite green tea brand that springs from the mineral-rich soils at the base of Trongsa’s Black Mountain. 

Launched in April 2009 with 27 founding members, this cooperative has blossomed, now comprising 34 committed women. This growth tells the story of not only the cooperative’s success but also its unique distinction as an all-female collective in the community.

 The green tea cultivated by the cooperative originates from the Camellia sinensis plant and is steeped in a rich history. Its roots can be traced back to the Samdrupcholing Palace, where the Second Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck personally nurtured the tea. This legacy is deeply cherished by locals, including 86-year-old Karchungla, who fondly remembers the prized saplings once collected from the palace garden.

 Originally planted on a large scale by the Department of Forest and Park Services as a measure to prevent landslides, the green tea has become the community’s newfound treasure. 

Under the leadership of Chairperson Lhamo, a forward-thinking leader, the cooperative stands as a testament to women’s leadership. It includes members ranging in age from 20 to 81, each playing a crucial role in preserving and continuing Bhutanese green tea’s legacy.

The rise in popularity of the tea and the shift towards commercial cultivation transformed the lives of the women in Samdrupcholing. Lhamo, who began her journey with green tea at the age of 19, has undergone extensive training both within Bhutan and abroad. This personal development reflects the increasing demand for Bhutanese green tea, celebrated for its organic cultivation methods and its health benefits, further enhancing the community’s prosperity and well-being.

 The cooperative’s resolute dedication and commitment have not gone unnoticed, culminating in the prestigious Best Green Tea Producers Award in 2018, bestowed by the Government of India. This recognition is a testament to their hard work and the quality of their product. 

Additionally, with the support of the government, members have had the opportunity to receive training in Nepal, Japan, China, and India, further enhancing their expertise and enabling the cooperative to broaden its market reach. This international exposure not only elevates their craft but also positions Bhutanese green tea as a competitor on the global stage, showcasing the potential of community-driven initiatives in transforming local industries.

 The women of Samdrupcholing Ngoja Tshonglay Detshen attribute their success to a confluence of factors: the historical legacy of their tea, the conducive cultivation conditions in Samdrupcholing, and notably, the minimal wildlife interference that provides an ideal environment for tea growth. 

Sonam, a cooperative member, highlights the manageability of the tea cultivation process, which significantly contributes to the empowerment of women in the village, enabling them to excel in their roles as cultivators and providers. 

The cultivation cycle of the green tea plants, which takes about one to three years to establish, results in a sustainable yield of tea leaves for up to 40 years, offering a long-term livelihood for the community and reinforcing the integral role of women in sustaining and nurturing this heritage.

Transitioning to commercial operations has brought transformative changes to the lives of the cooperative’s members. Sonam, a single mother and a member of the cooperative, speaks of the newfound security she has attained. Earning approximately Nu 100,000 annually, she now has the means to support her daughter’s education, alleviating the financial burdens she once bore alone. 

Reflecting on the positive impact, Sonam describes the cooperative as a blessing for all its members, signifying the profound difference it has made in their lives.

In addition to empowering women as active contributors to household incomes, the cooperative creates employment opportunities for its members. During the tea leaf plucking season, even school-going children have the chance to earn Nu 500 a day on weekends and holidays. This not only supplements family incomes but also instills a sense of responsibility and work ethic in the younger generation, contributing to their overall development.

Sustaining their business remains the top priority for the cooperative. Through enhanced management, processing, and packaging practices, 2023 proved to be their most successful year yet. They amassed over Nu 4 million in revenue from the sale of green tea and tea saplings. Individual members reaped significant benefits, with earnings ranging from Nu 70,000 to Nu 500,000. 

Pelden, 37, who earned Nu 500,000 in 2023, emphasised the flexibility this income provided, allowing her to allocate funds wherever needed. 

Looking ahead, the group harbors ambitions of establishing large-scale green tea plantations across the entire Samdrupcholing area, provided they secure the necessary funding.



The cooperative aspires to export its tea to regional and international markets, aiming to tap into the growing demand for green tea. Despite facing challenges in partnering with international companies producing similar teas, they remain determined to explore opportunities in key markets such as East Asia, particularly in countries like China and Japan, where green tea consumption is at its peak. 

Recognising the potential in accessing markets like the Asia-Pacific Tea Market, the management of the cooperative is keen on expanding their reach beyond domestic borders.

Despite encountering these hurdles, the cooperative is unwavering in its dedication to diversify its product offerings and improve production facilities. This strategic approach aims to meet the changing preferences of consumers while safeguarding Bhutanese heritage. 

Among the new tea items in the pipeline are butter tea leaves, Oolong tea, black tea, and tea bags. By introducing these varieties, the cooperative seeks to reduce reliance on imports from external sources, further contributing to the sustainability and self-sufficiency of Bhutan’s tea industry.

Indeed, village cooperatives play a vital role in driving socio-economic progress by fostering innovation, creating employment opportunities, reducing poverty, and promoting social equality. Samdrupcholing Green Tea serves as a shining example of women’s entrepreneurship within this framework. Through their cooperative, these women have not only revitalised their community’s economy but also preserved Bhutanese heritage by producing high-quality green tea. 

Their success story underscores the transformative power of collective action and highlights the significant contributions that women can make to local economies and societies when provided with the opportunity and support to thrive.

“In a country that treasures its agricultural legacy and strives to enhance rural livelihoods, endeavours such as the Samdrupcholing tea act as catalysts for positive transformation. They contribute significantly to the overall welfare of communities,” said the former gup of Drakteng and spouse of chairman Lhamo.

Kuensel partners with FAO Bhutan to spotlight women in agrifood systems, empowering their participation and transformation.