Jovial is too round a word for the tall-as-a-rail Mike Bunston but it accurately describes how he is viewed by the tea industry worldwide.
Michael James Bunston is a goodwill ambassador of tea. He has served as Honorary Chairman of the International Tea Committee for 19 years, a task he first undertook in the later years of a career as a tea broker that began in 1959. Bunston retired in 2002 but has never been busier. During his tenure and working without pay, he tirelessly added to the list of countries that belong to the non-profit ITC.
ITC’s primary activity is to collect and collate reliable statistical data on tea production and trade. The Annual Bulletin of Statistics, compiled under the direction of ITC Chief Executive Manuja Peiris, offers analytical tools essential to valid forecasts.
Since its creation in 1933 the ITC has also played an important role in ensuring a balanced and open discussion between the major players in the global tea market. In recent years, Bunston has chaired numerous discussions between producer and consumer countries on the challenges facing the global tea industry. He organized the Producer-Consumer Forum in 2005 which has considered topics such as fair trade, sustainable production, organic growing, climate change, PGI teas and many other complex economic realities.
Bunston explains that he first took on the Chair “as I was and still am a great believer in what they do and was very keen to continue the good work and encourage its expansion, particularly engaging as many producers and consumers as possible.”
He advocates ITC “take on wider responsibility” exemplified in his own involvement in the rebuilding of Rwanda.
Bunston first visited Rwanda in 1970, a time when very little tea was grown. “The scenic beauty of the countryside is one of my fondest memories of Africa,” he says. During the next 20 years he watched the tea industry expand to cover thousands of hectares and construct many factories, creating thousands of jobs.
His firm represented Rwanda’s government plantations in the London Tea Auction in those days and Bunston achieved some of the highest prices offered for several outstanding teas.
Following the shocking genocide of 1994, he used his influence on his return to Rwanda to arrange help in getting their teas back to the auction and he witnessed the rehabilitation of a number of factories and the re-marketing of their teas.
ITC has always had its home in the UK. The chair must deftly wield the power of a very strong home market whilst having intimate and long standing knowledge of producers markets.
Romance Amid Chaos
Rwanda wasn’t his first experience with chaos.
In 1966 Bunston was selected to go to Uganda for 18 months to manage the marketing for several tea plantations and factory companies owned by the Uganda Development Corporation. Civil war had just broken out making it quite dangerous.
Bunston was newly engaged at the time and his fiancée was very concerned about his being so far away and in dangerous surroundings. Committed to his career and faced with the long expatriation to East Africa, Bunston decided that if Linda, his fiancée and their parents would agree, there was no point in waiting and suffering anxiety. They were married August 6, 1966 and travelled to Africa shortly after as husband and wife.
“Beware, if this may sound romantic I can tell you it was not at all; we were constantly living in uncertain times, there was curfew every night and every day we faced roadblocks and travel restrictions,” he recalls.
Apart from these political problems he remembers this time as intensely interesting, a wonderful challenge for a tea professional and full of rich experience. The couple spent 10 months in Uganda before returning to London.
Rajiv Lochan, Joe Simrany and Mike Bunston.
A Start in Tea
Bunston first learned the trade sipping tea in the saleroom. His uncle was the head buyer for “Lyons Tea” a firm later amalgamated with Tetley and then bought by Tata Tea. His uncle arranged for his young nephew to start his tea training with Wilson Smithett & Co., one of the major tea brokers in London.
That meant going to the warehouses on many occasions with the tea inspectors to check the teas on arrival and then tasting a hundred cups or more of samples during the day.
He was soon fully involved in tea. Bunston worked his way from the tea saleroom floor to partner and director in 1975.
He recalls fondly the fact it was six years of hard work before he first got the boss’s attention and was invited to give his opinion about some teas. By then, he knew tea.
His next stop was the London Tea Auction, an institution dating from 1679 until it was closed in June 1998. Bunston says his involvement as a broker there is his most important personal achievement. During these years he also served on several Tea Trade Committees, including The European Tea Committee and he chaired both the Tea Brokers Association and The United Kingdom Tea Association.
The best brokers are “a go between” assisting both the producers and the consumers in achieving the most appropriate prices. Over decades his assessments of the many, many teas that he evaluated were reliable thanks to the extensive tasting experience in his youth.
In his usual pleasant and enthusiastic way Mike closes our discussion by underlining that he loves tea, all teas indeed.
“But even more I love all the tea people who have crossed my path throughout these many years, every time allowing for direct human contact, the sharing of knowledge and the exchanging of experience,” he says. “I am a lucky man.”
Barbara Dufrene is a travailleur indépendant du secteur agro-alimentaire who publishes Tasses & Terroirs in Paris, France.