Pukka Herbs has become a quintessential example of an ethically-driven, organic herb company with big picture ideologies, born out of a passion to make a difference. It’s now unusual to find someone who regards themselves as health aware who doesn’t have one or more packets of Pukka herb tea nestled away in their kitchen cupboards.
But, as we discover in this exclusive profile piece, there’s a whole lot more to Pukka than being an organic tea company. Pukka's mission is all about ensuring consumers benefit from the natural power of organic plants whilst the company nurtures the farmers who grow them responsibly and in doing so protect the planet.
With this philosophy, the company has managed to almost double its turnover every two years. OK, it’s easier to do when you were a mere start-up 12 years ago and you’ve yet to reach anything near market saturation. But it’s a very impressive and unusual happening all the same for the UK natural products sector, especially given the stringent regulatory challenges at present.
“We wanted to create a circle of benevolence, where everyone that was a part of the Pukka community would benefit from our presence,” says Sebastian Pole, co-founder of Pukka Herbs. It’s clear there is no waning of the enthusiasm that has driven Sebastian and his business partner, Tim Westwell, to build Pukka from a tiny enterprise operating out of Tim’s spare room into one of the fastest-growing businesses in the UK natural health sector.
Sebastian Pole, co-founder of Pukka Herbs, examining marigolds and helping prepare cinnamon
Even a book Pukka published to celebrate their tenth year in business, Celebrating Ten Pukka Years, sells their success slightly short: “Take one herbalist, one entrepreneur, one big idea, a whole lot of inspiration and stir. The result: Pukka Herbs and millions of cups of delicious herbal tea.”
During that tenth year milestone, someone poured hot water onto the one-billionth cup of Pukka herbal tea, Pukka’s annual turnover hit £9 million and Pukka products found their way into 40 different countries.
Emphasising the do-good-for-the-planet mission, Pukka has broadened its corporate responsibility efforts. A recent move was to gain FairWild certification for its teas, in recognition of its sustainability efforts.
Pukka have worked hard to build strong relationships with their farmers, such as these rose growers
Despite its reputation as a purveyor of high-quality, organic herbal teas, much of Pukka’s product range is far more cutting-edge. “We’ve spent the last 3 years developing something called Wholistic Extracts,” says Sebastian. “We’ve taken a water- or alcohol-based extract and dried that down to the solid, and we’ve also taken a supercritical, oil-based extract and dried that down to a solid as well. When this is powdered down, you get a high concentration product with a broad spectrum of compounds.” Turmeric root, for instance, usually contains around 3% of the active substance curcumin. Pukka’s Wholistic Turmeric, however, contains 30% curcumin. But even more importantly, “It also has the whole range of turmeric compounds,” adds Sebastian, “Because we mix it with whole root as well. This is quite different from going down the isolated 95% curcumin route, because you’re getting all these other compounds as well: turmerone, volatile oils and all the other yellow and orange pigments.”
What unifies Pukka’s range – which covers everything from Indian foods like ghee (clarified butter) and the multiherb, traditional Ayurvedic health tonic chywanaprash, to herbal blends for digestion, male and female health, cleansing and more, food supplements, personal care products and practitioner products – is its commitment to its suppliers and their local communities. “From the beginning, Tim and I were into ‘conservation with commerce’,” explains Sebastian. “We wanted to bring really high-quality herbs to people, to get more people connected with plants and nature. We’d have long-term relationships with the growers we work with, they’d get paid a fair wage and we’d have a decent working relationship.” Pukka’s suppliers are located in more than 30 countries worldwide, most of which have been supplying the company from the beginning. Pukka’s main Indian supplier, from whom the company buys 70 plant species, is now one of the country’s major spice exporters. Sebastian believes that Pukka’s enlightened supplier arrangements are mutually beneficial: “We’ve got consistent supply, we’ve a guarantee of quality, we’ve got traceability and we can really work with our suppliers to understand what the needs of the soil are, what the needs of the water are, what the needs of harvesting and drying are. They can understand our challenges and we can understand theirs.”
Farmers preparing chamomile and licorice root
Quality control is crucial. “We input with [our suppliers] and help them grow and dry the plants at the correct time to get the optimal level of phytochemical compounds and the best organoleptic experience,” says Sebastian. “We’ve then got a laboratory back at Pukka where we do our own chromatography and essential oil analysis, to ensure that we’re meeting pharmacopoeia grade. We also outsource to other laboratories who do other technical work for us.”
Faith and trust in nature
Pukka’s focus on conservation, sustainability and quality springs from the deeply held beliefs of its founders. Sebastian started out by getting a degree in Hindi and religious studies in his twenties: “This got me interested in Ayurveda. When I was in England, I did Michael Tierra’s course in Planetary Herbology and went on to the College of Ayurveda [now part of Middlesex University] followed by the London College of Traditional Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, where I learned traditional Chinese herbal medicine. This was all before I set up Pukka. I’d also worked on a farm in Somerset called Hambeldon Herbs while I was doing all that training. So I had three things: the Hindi language, the agricultural experience of working on an organic farm and being a herbalist. These things just coalesced: I realised there was a way to make some really delicious teas and some really good, functional, effective supplements that would combine my skills and connect people more with plants.”
Lancashire-born Tim, by contrast, started out working in information technology and commerce, “Which he found a bit hollow,” according to Sebastian, although Tim goes further: “My soul was dying,” is how he describes it in Celebrating Ten Pukka Years. “He wanted to do something more ethical and more environmentally responsible. Tim’s our Managing Director at Pukka and he runs the business.” Their relationship began when Tim, after turning his health around through natural methods, placed an advert in a Bristol magazine and received a single response – from Sebastian Pole.
A farmer among his marigolds
So what do Seb and Tim want to achieve with Pukka? “We want to do our best for traditional herbal medicine, and to be a part of the wellspring that’s going on in our society today. We want to help people to make more empowered choices about their health and take greater responsibility by regaining their faith and trust in the innate healing power of nature. Our goal is get people to take plants that can catalyse and harness that power – and help people to have a better life.”
With these kind of ideologies, it’s no surprise that so many enjoy the teas and herbs that Pukka produce. It’s also inspirational that these kind of ideologies can be combined with successful business — two notions that have mistakenly been considered as incompatible.