“Camellia seed oil has great potential to be an ingredient for the high-value agriculture industry in East Asia.” says Chao Wen-hao, General Manager of Cha Tzu Tang,“ As it is rich in nutritional value and can be used for remedial purposes, camellia oil is often seen as ‘olive oil of the East.’”
Camellia oil used to be quite common in the market. However, it is almost impossible to find one that is made from Taiwanese camellia seeds nowadays, due to the declining local industry and the dumping of camellia seeds from China.
“If we don’t preserve and cultivate it, camellia will extinct in our generation,” says Chao with a sigh, “Somebody ought to be responsible for our land and carry on taking care of it.”
This belief has triggered him to lead Cha Tzu Tang, which was then mostly selling cleaning products made from camellia seeds, to trace back the origin of the supply chain, where camellias grow, aiming to revive Taiwan’s hundred-year-old culture and its essence.
Tracing camellia back to its origins in order to produce the best camellia oil
Why waste time visiting the source and conducting field surveys, just to sell a bottle of camellia oil? “Because we want to make great products,” Chao adds, “and the key to making a great product lies in both great ingredients and processing.”
Yet, this understanding comes from quite a few failures in business.
Back in 2012, Chao already had the plan to produce camellia oil, considering using native camellia seeds in addition to seeds from China, as Cha Tzu Tang is a Taiwanese brand. However, the team encountered numerous difficulties as soon as they started the implementation.
“As a matter of fact, oil-pressing factories don’t really process native seeds.” Chao further explains that, currently, oil-pressing factories mostly import foreign camellia seeds to produce commercial oil. For these factories, local seeds have a high cost and low supply, lacking economic incentives.
When Cha Tzu Tang finally found factories that were willing to undertake the business, a series of food scandals unfolded in Taiwan, spurring the demand for camellia oil and triggering oil-pressing factories to sell the oil by themselves. Not only did they keep hold of Chinese seeds, but they also refused to purchase Taiwanese seeds.
As a result of this difficult encounter, Chao decided to establish his own team to conduct agricultural planning, ensuring every step of the production process is of the highest quality, from the types and origins of the seeds to harvest to oil-pressing.
“If the agriculture industry in Taiwan has already matured, we wouldn’t need to spend this amount of energy. But since no one from the top of the supply chain is willing to make this effort, we have to establish the chain and trace back to the source on our own.” Chao laughs bitterly.
Establishing a dedicated agricultural planning team to preserve the culture of camellia oil
Since 2014, Cha Tzu Tang’s team has explored 20 camellia production areas across Taiwan and visited more than 50 camellia farmers. Throughout these trips, the team has discovered several difficulties the farmers are facing.
Chao states that the most prevalent problem of the agriculture industry in Taiwan is the growing aging population. The average age of camellia farmers is 70 plus. “When they are gone, the culture and tales are very likely to fade as well.”
In 2014, Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture has officially listed camellias into an incentive program, rewarding farmers with NT $45,000 per hectare per year for the first four years of farming. However, younger farmers still have low willingness to participate. Chao reckons the reason is related to the high opportunity cost as it takes five to ten years to harvest a new plant. In addition, the camellia industry provides little or no value realization yet. “Take tea leaves for example, the price could reach as high as NT $20,000 per kilogram in a promising scenario. On the other hand, the price of camellia oil made from Taiwanese seeds could only be sold at around NT $1,500 to NT $2,000 per kilogram.” If the crops don’t show economic potential, no matter how high the subsidies are, farmers would not settle.
Nevertheless, Chao has observed that many camellia farmers are still trying to find their way. They just need some help to bridge the gap.
With the ambition to increase the market value of the camellia sector, Cha Tzu Tang established their own agricultural planning team and a five-year master plan, starting from an extensive ground research about history and culture. Cha Tzu Tang put a great effort to understand the circumstances and challenges within the sector. Then, they purchased camellia seeds from contracted farms at a reasonable price, ensuring the livelihood of smallholder farmers. In the meantime, they actively explored new partnerships, discussing with the betel nut farmers in Ali Mountain, Chiayi County, to change crops to camellias and with farmers in Ren-Ai Township, Nantou County, to resume the cultivation of the land lying fallow. In 2016, Cha Tzu Tang planted the first batch of 3,000 camellia seeds, aiming to carry on this initiative for 20 consecutive years.
“Revive our land and bring more people back home”
As of now, Cha Tzu Tang is partnering with six contracted farms. 18 farmers have participated in revitalizing nearly five hectares of fallow land. Yet, It takes three kilograms of fresh camellia seeds to extract a 250ml bottle of camellia oil. So even with 3,000 new camellias planted, the annual oil production will be around 1,000 bottles only, equivalent to the supply for less than 500 families. In light of this, Cha Tzu Tang has initiated “The Journey to Revitalize the Camellia Oil” project, empowering citizens to support the local camellia industry by contributing to the funds that will be used to protect and grow camellia sprouts.
Joining the agricultural sector as an entrepreneur at a young age, Chao explains what camellia means to him and shares his observations towards the divided Taiwanese younger generation, in terms of going abroad to study or work or staying in Taiwan. “Since we choose to stay, we need to identify the challenges ahead instead of just complaining. We ought to try to make Taiwan a better place.”
“I hope that, through Cha Tzu Tang’s efforts, more people would show concern towards our land and start brainstorming ideas that could help revive our land collectively and, ultimately, bring more Taiwanese back home.”