Wander into a 7-Eleven in Copenhagen and alongside the Coca-Cola fridge is the Pukka tea machine, dispensing hot water and your choice of one of Pukka’s 24 herbal teas. Pukka Herbs has become an internationally recognisable brand selling its teas, herbal tonics and now skincare range as far afield as South Africa, the U.S. and New Zealand. But its founder, 43-year-old Sebastian Pole, is a far cry from your typical corporate executive. In fact, 20 years ago he was living in a cave in India with a handful of Holy Men. Such a change of fortunes might have changed other men but Sebastian has remained very true to his freewheeling past. It helps that he’s still really doing the same thing; turning herbs into delicious teas, lotions and potions.
Looking back now, running a company promoting the sustainable use of herbal medicine seems like a role Sebastian was destined for. But Seb had no such big plans in mind when he arrived back from five years of travelling and studying herbal medicine in India and enrolled at SOAS to do a degree in Hindi. “My only thoughts were “right, there’s a billion people there. I’d love to talk to some of them,” he laughs.
Seb’s time in India had also got him interested in plants. He started using turmeric, ashwandha root and many other herbs for medicinal purposes. “In India, I really felt that magic of nature and how much food can affect you. I thought how can I spend my life connecting plants and people together so they can benefit from each other.” He went back to studying again – this time Ayurvedic, Chinese and Western herbal medicine – and working as a gardener at Hambledon Herbs organic farm in Somerset. It was a really inspirational time for Seb but after two years of living in a caravan on site, Seb jokes he had become completely “unemployable”. He realised the only way forward was to work for himself.
Seb had already developed a reputation treating clients on a one-to-one basis but he knew he needed to expand if he was going to convince large numbers of people of the wonders of herbs. “When I graduated there was all these awful fruit flavoured teas around and I knew I could do better.” So he started to make speculative trips to India, travelling for days on rough roads to small farms, which grew herbs like amla, gotu kola, and tulsi (holy basil). Finally, the many strands of his eclectic life came together; his knowledge and love of herbs, the background in organic farming and his ability to speak Hindi. However, there was still one element missing. Seb was not a businessman, “I saw the commercial world as valueless and cut throat,” he confesses. He needed a partner.
As luck or fate would have it, he spotted an ad in a Bristol paper offering him just the skills he needed. Tim Westwell had been a marketing consultant for office equipment, computer software and other uninspiring products. At a crossroads in his life, he wanted a job where he could be himself and use his skills to promote natural health. He had been converted to herbs after using them to manage pain from a back injury. His ad, offering to help anyone wanting to grow an organic business, got one reply. It was from Seb.
The unlikely executives threw themselves into building a business based on their beliefs rather than on profits. It was to embody the values of Ayurveda, which Seb explains is simply “the art of living wisely” and spread the word of herbal health. After a few false starts, Pukka was chosen as the brand name as it means “real, authentic and genuine” in Hindi as well as being used in the UK colloquially to mean “good quality”. From their humble beginnings in Tim’s flat, Pukka has now grown to work with suppliers in 30 countries around the world. It imports herbs like peppermint, hibiscus and spearmint from Egypt, nettles, elderflowers, fennel and dandelions from Europe and 60 different herbs from India where they work with over 500 farmers. Seb still finds his visits to these growers one of the best parts of the job.
“I love the fact that in the process of giving people a nice cup of tea, you create a circle of benevolence which benefits everyone including the environment. The grower benefits because they haven’t got so many middlemen involved. The environment benefits because you’re implementing organic systems and also growing rare species in quite a homogenised farming system. You give the grower pride because they’re doing something really cool like growing cinnamon, chamomile or ginger, compared to their neighbour who’s just growing wheat or some other commodity crop. And hopefully that helps them maintain some pride in their identity and see value in their livelihood so all the young kids don’t run off to the city to seek a better future.”
Seb talks about a village in Vietnam where they have just started working with a black tea project amongst the H’mong tribe. Traditionally, the village has grown a lot of opium and there has been continuous trouble as a result. The black tea project has given the tribe some autonomy. Their income is no longer linked to the international drugs trade or to the constantly fluctuating commodities market (rice, wheat, etc) so they can choose to build community centres and schools knowing that the money they are paid is guaranteed.
While it is rewarding to see the impact that Pukka is having on small rural communities overseas, Seb realises they have a long way to go in the UK before the majority of the population are convinced of the benefits of herbal medicine.
“The problem is our society doesn’t recognise the long tradition that people have of looking after their own health through food and herbal remedies. At the moment, people don’t even know what to do if they have a cough or cold. However, my granny used to know loads of things but the information got lost in a couple of generations.” Forever the optimist, he adds, “I don’t see why it can’t be re-learned in a couple of generations!”
Seb does practise what he preaches but he also likes to celebrate. He lives with his acupuncturist wife and teenage stepson on a two-acre plot, half an hour south of Bristol, which is regularly the scene of delicious dinners and parties, “Ayurveda is all about celebrating the bounty of life and the wonder of the senses. Through sound, touch, smell and taste we can really engage with life and therefore we get more out of it,” says Seb. “In the end, it’s all about balance.”
If there’s one secret to Pukka’s success, it appears to lie in that old adage of “keeping true to yourself”. Both Seb and Tim had a personal belief system which enabled them to first, come up with a great business idea and then work out how to take that out to the world in a way that would benefit all involved.
“A central concept within Indian philosophy is of attaining bliss. What we’re trying to do at Pukka is give people a few moments of bliss during the day. I mean a cup of tea is just a guaranteed good moment, isn’t it? It’s one time of the day when you can really connect with yourself. And when you’re more connected, you feel better and you can work more efficiently. You can be a better person.”
Herbs and foods to get you through the winter
Elderberries or elderberry syrup is really soothing for the lungs and for a cough.
Tulsi is a plant grown in India, which you make into a tea. It helps the body sweat and throws off seasonal lurgies.
Ginger is good for increasing circulation and warming any cold.
Garlic is very good for strengthening immunity.
Cinnamon is warming for the digestive system and increases circulation.
Beetroot is a root vegetable that helps to build strength over the winter. Makes us more centred and grounded.
Cocoa powder is a brilliant mood booster. Drink it with milk to lift your spirits!
Sign up to our Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news