Damodar Boruah is an award-winning yet “unknown writer, lesser-known poet” as he self-deprecatingly describes himself. He’s also a tea farmer, though his background is in software engineering. But fate led him back to his family’s small tea plantation, where he’s now trying to use his business experience to better the fortunes of the smallholder tea farmers in his native Assam, India. And he thinks he’s hit upon the perfect ingredient to help their teas stand out from the competition: the ghost pepper.
“Some call it literally ‘Bhutanese Chili’ or chili from the country of Bhutan,” Boruah told Grow Further. Bhut Jolokia, the ghost pepper, is also known as “the king of chilis” for its size, but especially for its heat. “Bhut Jolokia was certified as the world’s hottest pepper in 2007,” Boruah explained. “Later it was superseded by the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper in 2011, and by the Carolina Reaper in 2013.” In terms of Scoville Heat Units, those two chili peppers are rated at 1,463,700 SHU and 1,569,300 SHU, respectively. At just over 1,000,000 SHU the ghost pepper still ranks among the top “super-hot” chilis in the world by ultra-spicy food enthusiasts, much hotter than cayenne. Consuming one ghost pepper whole could put a person in the hospital. “Despite this, Bhut jolokia is preferable for its uniqueness, beauty, pungency, and many medicinal values,” he said. Boruah swears ghost peppers are a perfect complement for his small grower’s association’s Assamese teas. To explain how he came to this realization, Boruah first told us his story.
Born and raised in the Kakodonga region of Assam, India, in the town of Golaghat, Boruah grew up on a tea plantation but was compelled to pursue a professional career instead. He graduated from Sainik School Goalpara in 1995, then went on to earn an honors degree from the Guru Nanak Institute of Information Technology in 1998. There, he studied software engineering “along with many short-term courses, having experience in marketing of software, education, pharmaceutical, insurance, nutraceutical,” he explained.
That all went well until a “family liability” (which he declined to specify) compelled his return to his father’s tea plantation. He promptly took it over, and soon learned why Assam’s small tea growers too often struggle to survive.
Small tea growers need many things, but chief among them “a fair price for green leaf,” he said. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit India especially hard, has made things only more difficult for Assam’s tea farmers. “The price sometimes is fixed based on demand and supply, or quality, and it is fixed by the auction center,” he said. “In my last 15 years as a small tea grower…even during the pandemic we have got price as high 48 rupees per kilogram for green leaf, and as low as 10 rupees per kilogram in last part of the season in December when the quality of tea goes down.” In dollar terms, that means the best price he and his fellow small tea growers can hope for ranges from about 14 cents to 66 cents per kilogram. That adds up to meager earnings for a small tea farm just a few hectares in size.
Boruah said his region’s tea farmers struggle in part because they mainly sell to one major factory, he said, leaving them at the mercy of that one company. They’ve tried diversifying into organic green tea but have run into troubles there, as well. “They don’t have assurances when their organic green leaf will be sold,” he said, a marketing problem made worse by pandemic-induced lockdowns. So he came up with an idea, one inspired by his mentor, Raj Kumar Kalita, a retired tax officer, and ghost pepper hobbyist. “I thought of marketing Bhut Jolokia and its products,” he said, including a ghost pepper-blended tea, which he figured could be sold as a health product as well as something to kick-start the day with.
There’s precedent, he insists. “We are from Assam, in the northeast of India, a hotspot for biodiversity, having different herbs which are of much medicinal value,” Boruah said. “It’s proved that [Bhut jolokia] can be used for protecting the heart, kidneys, brain, controlling diabetes, and so forth.” As evidence, he shared with us a review of the scientific literature on Assam’s ghost peppers. Research has found that the main chemical ingredient in ghost pepper, capsaicin, can reduce pain and inflammation and may even inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Capsaicin can also help with heart disease, weight loss, and contains antioxidant properties (https://globalresearchonline.net/journalcontents/v24-2/15.pdf).
Ghost peppers hold a higher concentration of capsaicin compared to other chili peppers, part of the secret to their incredible spiciness. Boruah argued that ghost peppers might even help boost immune systems, though this claim hasn’t yet been tested in scientific literature. He and his fellow tea growers have struggled in the pandemic, and many ways continue to do so, but Boruah said he is now seeing some success for his ghost pepper tea product in his region. Next, he hopes to develop an export market for this innovative agricultural product.
Surprisingly, he said tea mixed with the world’s third spiciest chili pepper doesn’t result in a concoction too spicy for anyone to drink. “If a guest comes, he will be served Bhut Jolokia tea and he will not know until he is told,” Boruah swears, though we’re not sure if we 100% believe him. “Yes, some spiciness will be there,” he admits. “We prefer children above 12 years should take it.” But it’s a new way of literally spicing up struggling smallholder agriculture in northeastern India.
Bhut Jolokia tea allows Assam’s farmers to stand out in a crowded market, opening up the region’s agricultural products to a wider audience. “Bhut Jolokia powder can be blended with any kind of tea,” Boruah told Grow Further. Five years ago he assumed a leadership role at the All Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association. In that role, he’s been working hard to spread the word about Bhut Jolokia tea to the thousands of other small tea growers in his region. The next step is to try reaching more buyers. “We are approaching many organizations, companies, pharmaceutical companies,” Boruah said. The pandemic hasn’t made this sales pitch easy at all, but he says he’s determined to see his innovation succeed. “Bhut Jolokia farmers will get new markets, new products will be created per the need, the taste,” he said. “Someone has to think, someone has to create. Someone has to get benefit out of this business.”
Boruah shows that the sort of innovations that Grow Further might support needn’t come from scientists, but can come from a poet, software engineer, farmer–or an all-of-the-above.
— Grow Further
Photo credit: Bhut Jolokia. By Vikramjit Kakati, Creative Commons