Healthy Line Shops: Transforming the food ecosystem in tea estates

 At the heart of the tea estates in the state of Assam, an innovative supply chain model has been launched: The Healthy Line Shops (HLS). These neighbourhood retail shops provide healthy and nutritious food products to tea workers and their families. The model creates a sustainable supply chain of nutritious products through novel networks with local distributors to reduce the burden and costs of sourcing products from wholesalers in the nearby town. Offering products in cash and credit, these ‘Healthy Line Shops’ are important and sometimes the only access points for tea workers for their daily nutritious products.  

As Sheila Devi opens the shutter in the early morning, she awaits the arrival of her customers to buy products from her shop. Her confident smile is a testimony that she will do good business owing to the Bihu festival. 

Woman looking at the camera and standing in front of her shop

 Sheila Devi waiting for her customers after opening her shop in the morning. 

While waiting, she talks about one of the reasons that motivated her to start the shop, “We felt cheated as most of the existing shops in our neighbourhood sold food products at higher prices than the nearby markets. Even packed food was sold at prices above Market Retail Price (Maximum price that can be charged from customers in India as specified by authority)”. She has come a long way since she started her shop 25 years back with a mere investment of INR 500 INR ( USD 6.7), to now stocking products worth more than INR 1,00,000 INR (USD1333). 

This was not always the case. Initially, her target was to provide the basic staple food items to the neighborhood. Over time, she kept on adding new products and offered them at a competitive price. She also introduced credit-based payments which helped her to attract new customers and grow her business. 


Man discharging a van and holding a heavy box

The central distributor provides doorstep delivery of the entire stock of food products. 

When the Ecociate Team first approached her with the concept and model of Healthy Line Shops, she was a bit hesitant. The promise of doorstep delivery of stocks and extension of interest-free credit purchase from the project seemed too good to be true. Nonetheless, with the consistent efforts of the project team, she gave it a try and received a one-time free supply of nutritious food products. Among others, the free stock included fresh fruits and vegetables which she thought could never be sold in a small retail shop like hers.

The model has proven to be more than a one-time free supply of food. Since then, the project team has linked Sheila with a centrally located demand aggregator from the nearby town. This aggregator collects orders from different Healthy Line Shops, sources food and other products from wholesalers at fair prices, and later delivers them to each shop. At first, the transportation cost for the delivery by the aggregator had to be supported by the project. With time, the growth in business between HLS distributors and HLS  generated enough surplus to meet the transport cost for doorstep delivery. As a result, transportation costs from the project were phased out over time, increasing the sustainability of the model. Apart from linking Sheila with the aggregator, the project team also provided support to her for business operations such as structuring the order cycles, maintaining stock registers, tracking the sales, and placement of orders before depletion in stock, as well as basic nutrition information to promote her nutritious food products. 

Close up of food stacked inside the shop

The model helped Sheila to cut down on the business cost, especially on transport as shifted from procuring stocks 6-7 times a month to only 2-3 times a month. This helped her in saving multiple visits to the wholesaler, making it possible for her to spend quality time with her family. In addition, the project also taught her to plan her stocks efficiently and created a unique identity for her shop by branding it with nutrition messaging. Apart from providing last-mile connectivity, the project also organizes various activities to spread awareness on the availability and consumption of healthier diets which helped her to acquire new customers and grow her business. 

Shot of blue shop and wondow

Sheila Devi’s shop is one of the 32 Healthy Line Shops on Assam tea estates, with more to come. Just like Sheila’s shop, other shop owners have also benefited from the project and have observed an increase in demand and consumption of nutritious foods. The model has provided an opportunity for both the HLS Demand Aggregator and the retail shop owners to expand business with low investments.  This Healthy Line Shop is part of a sector-wide nutrition program, named “Healthy Diets for Tea Communities.” The program is jointly led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and is implemented across Asia and Africa. The aim is to reach 750,000 tea workers and their family members in Kenya, Malawi, and India with improved diets by increasing awareness of and access to nutritious and safe foods. The project is a public-private partnership, funded by 7 tea companies (Unilever, Taylors of Harrogate, Republic of Tea, Jacob Douwe Egberts, Ringtons Foundation, Wollenhaupt, Reginald Ames ,and Bigelow) along with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

In India, the program aims to cover 110 tea estates reaching out to approximately 110,000 workers and their families in Assam. Currently, there are 32 Healthy Line Shops across 8 tea estates that are functioning independently and are ensuring a regular supply of nutritious foods to 3200+ households. As a result of its success, the model is now being scaled up to 120+ new Healthy Line Shops covering 30 tea estates in the north-eastern region of Assam. This upscaling has the potential for an annual business of INR 25 million (USD 3.2 million) and would provide nutritious food products to 50,000 tea garden workers and their families.