When her husband passed away in 2011 the world changed for Anjum Numan Mohommed, a homemaker and doting mother of two children. She had to take over the reins of the more than century-old ancestral tea estate that her husband left her. It was an alien territory where she was forced to tread and to learn while on the job. The 110-hectare Chapanala tea estate more popularly known as Bar Bagan (Big Garden) in central Assam’s Nagaon district is a British-era tea estate established in 1864.
Before 2011, Anjum’s knowledge of tea making was confined to brewing cups of milk tea or black tea for family and friends. Today, Anjum is in the business of managing tea gardens hitherto considered as the male bastion.
Anjum Numan tending the tea bushes
Nevertheless, Anjum’s journey from being a homemaker to running a tea garden was full of hurdles and odds. It’s still not a cakewalk. But she is determined to overcome all odds and it makes her a role model for aspiring women entrepreneurs.
"It was a very tough time. I did not know what business and tea growing meant. Moreover, my husband passed away at a time when he was constructing a tea factory and had taken a huge loan from a bank,” Anjum said in a conversation with Awaz-The Voice.
Anjum said that when she decided to take over the charge, the Chapanala tea estate was debt-ridden and there was no cash flow. Her son and daughter were studying and needed money for their studies.
Initially, Anjum handed over the garden to a few brokers. They promised to pay off her debt, run the factory and give her a certain amount to cover her expenses.
Anjum Numan being honoured
"This happened with two or three parties.I even agreed to sell once,” she says.
"They fleeced me. Instead of giving me money, I had to dip into our savings and shell out money whenever they asked for it. The garden almost came to the verge of being auctioned by the bank, “she said.
Anjum asked the bank to give her more time. She paid off the loan and interest by taking another loan from private financiers.
She also took over managing the garden after turning out the middlemen who had their agenda.
Anjum Numan at a function
"It was a man's world. In our community, which is still orthodox as regards women going out into the field, I faced opposition from my kin. It was only when I asked them whether they would feed me and my children that they kept quiet. But nobody came forward to help as the garden was in red and bad condition. Whoever came to help had the hidden agenda of taking over the garden, " Anjum said.
In the meantime, her daughter graduated and started working in a firm in Delhi. Her son too had completed his college and joined her in running the tea estate.
By selling green leaf Anjum has been able to sustain her family and pay off part of the debt, but the private finance loan continues to mount.
"During the pandemic, the government directed that the labourers have to be paid full wages irrespective of whether the garden is in production or not. From where could I get the money? On the one hand, the private financiers breathing down my neck on the other wages to be paid to the labourers with the garden not producing anything. There are so many hurdles," Anjum said. Things have come to such a pass that while the profit is 100 percent, the loan and its servicing comes to 130 percent.
Anjum Numan attending a function as chief guest
“Handling the workers is also a tough job as sometimes; They just do not want to listen to a woman,” she said.
With the tea industry going through a crisis, high cost of production, low tea leaf prices, and labour, Anjum is planning to work with a business partner who can be firm and also manage the garden well.
In this way, the garden will remain in the safe hands of her family and Anjum is confident that all liabilities will be paid off in due course of time.