Malawi is a relatively popular country as far as tea production in Africa is concerned. Second only to the East African giant Kenya, Malawian tea is revered and hailed all over the world for its exquisite taste. The Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) indicated a massive profit of over $11 million in 2016 alone, testament to the widespread acceptance of the crop in the country as a key economic driver.
Let’s delve into the history that makes it such a force to reckon to with.
History of Malawian tea
Malawi boasts of being the pioneer for tea growing in the African continent. The industry dates back to as far ago as 1890 when Europeans still had abodes in Africa. Jonathan Duncan is attributed with consistently trying out a variety of tea seeds in Malawian soils which he obtained from Edinburg. After many futile efforts, he successfully planted two tea trees in 1878 at the Blantyre Mission grounds. However, the true diversification of tea growing in the country’s fertile regions is pin-pointed back to one Henry Brown; a Scottish farmer who was in Malawi courtesy of Scottish Missionaries. The Missionaries had received the seeds from Edinburg’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Brown was eager to revive his passion in plantation farming after his coffee succumbed to disease in Sri Lanka. He went on to erect tea gardens at his estate and the climate only propelled the crop’s successful growth.
Mulanje lowlands and the Thyolo highlands were the first recipients of the newly introduced cash crop. The tea gardens in the aforementioned areas acquired the seeds from South Africa’s Natal which were originally transplanted and cultivated in Sri Lanka’s region of Ceylan.
Tea culture in Malawi
Well, it’s not unorthodox to point out that Malawi gets rarely mentioned in the global spectrum for its tea production prowess. Rather, it is usually known for the impoverished and poor state of its citizens. Perhaps, the world needs a little insight into the culture resonating around tea growth and consumption in the landlocked nation.
Foremost, Malawian teas are incredibly richer and deeper compared to its counterparts in the region. Some tea bushes have been in existence for decades thus the deep nature of its teas. Tea is primarily produced for commercial orientation. However, it doesn’t necessarily that Malawians are not staunch drinkers. In fact, they adore black tea and drink it to the extreme.
The tradition of tea consumption in Malawi is no different from how the rest of the African countries enjoy theirs. Since most of the countries in the continent were previously colonies, they adopted some of the tea-drinking mannerisms from their colonial lords. Usually, Malawians enjoy the first session of tea at 10 o’clock and another one at 4 p.m. The idea emanated from the fact that people are likely to feel a bit hungry in the latter hours of the afternoon after having lunch at 1 p.m. or thereabout. Additionally, Malawians also enjoy tea after dinner while having a late night banter.
Conventionally, black tea is the common choice for most Malawians and is typically enjoyed with milk and sugar. Herbal concoction with tea were made in the 90s but are no longer preferred.
The oldest tea plantations in Africa are found in Malawi. Such archaic tea bushes have been in existence for more than a century. Being a landlocked nation, Malawi doesn’t enjoy the coastline but is naturally endowed with impressive terrains and favorable weather that supports growth of tea.
Gigantic commercial estates account for more than 94% of the country’s tea output. The remaining segment is grown by close to 7500 small scale farmers who share only 14% of the total tea land. The majority of tea estates are owned by foreign entrepreneurs or firms and are located in Thyolo or Mulanje in the South East region of Malawi. Although the people of Malawi have been producing tea for a relatively long time, most plantation workers are still faced by socio-economic conditions. Such is characterized by very low wages and destitute living conditions. Two rival unions namely: Tea, Coffee and Macadamia Workers Union and the Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union are tasked with championing for the welfare of the famers and workers alike. Members are supposed to join either and the disparity in their operations has only the differences in the tea production sector in Malawi. The Tea Association of Malawi Limited is in hindsight, very organized and well run to ensure that exportation of tea and timely payment of tea farm owners is done without delay.
The Malawian government renders minimal support to tea farmers. Small scale farmers in liaison with private estate owners are forced to shoulder the burden of production and processing of tea leaves, including tea transportation to the purchasing company. While cotton enjoys subsidized support from the government through favorable price setting, the tea sector has been thrust in the background. Small hold farm owners take loans and credits from societies or from the companies where they sell tea to finance tea production and can be in form of seedlings, chemicals or fertilizers. During the peak season, tea from small hold farmers gets destroyed due to delayed transportation to processing farms, which means that it cannot be bought. Essentially, such unstructured systems in tea production, processing and dissemination continues to push Malawi tea farmers down the poverty ladder.
Tea factories are abundant in Malawi and are among the prime consumers of electricity in the country. They are spotted in as many tea producing areas. Tea estates are run by managers who double as both large scale farmers and factory heads. They are tasked with ensuring seamless operations within farms as far as machinery, farm and staff needs are concerned.
Some factories focus on CTC tea grades while a few have resulted into more flexible LTP tea production. The latter typically has large leaf sizes which are geared towards producing more flavored and unique tea drinks.
More than 90% of tea produced by the South African nation is black. Every annum, approximately 2500-3000 tons of tea is shipped to major tea importers and brands in Europe and Asia. Through widespread sensitization, small scale farmers are leaning more towards producing herbal, white or oolong teas. This is due to their high value commercially and aesthetically.
Although the country is prone to climatic variations throughout the year, it hasn’t hindered tea growth whatsoever. The fact that Malawian tea harbors a naturally exciting and complex flavor is attributed to the moderately high temperatures during the day and the cool temperatures at night. Shire highlands- a leading tea producing region in the country- enjoys a mixture of mist and conducive temperatures which greatly enhances tea production. One of the peculiar tea production estates that has since attracted global acclaim is the Satemwa Estate.
Types of teas produced
We cannot talk about tea types in Malawi without having a keener look into the Satemwa Tea Estates. A family-owned estate located in Shire highlands of Thyolo District, it is run by one Alexander Kay. The tea trees produced within the estate are pest-free and are of top notch quality. They are certified by Fair Trade, UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance. Contrary to black tea production in other parts of the country, Satemwa specializes in producing high-end green, white, black, oolong and dark teas. The company uses quality green tea leaf to produce the special variety of teas.
The Satemwa tea factory is known and acclaimed all over the world for its rich specialty tea and tasting escapades. These teas usually end up in the established and well-known tea brands all over the world such as Teltey’s, Lipton and 5 Roses. Let’s have a look at the types of teas grown in Malawi.
This type is uniquely different from anything you’ve ever tasted anywhere in the world. Hailing from Satemwa Estate, it is highly beneficial in matters health. Leased with antioxidants, the Malawian white tea is a favorite to many tea lovers. It is made from plucking the topmost velvet shoot when the buds have only started to appear. It is characterized by an intense aroma and delicate yet floral sweetness. Moreover, this special tea type can be steeped up for more than 4 times without losing its taste.
It features huge leaf unfurls and typically releases a golden-bright color when steeped. Although this type of tea is traditionally-inclined, it has since retained its indigenous value in the country in the face of flavored and high niche teas.
Whether green, oolong or black, they are produced, processed and finally blended with very distinct flavorings to pull and attract a quality and delicate taste. Herbs, spices and flowers are used to produce a rich variety of such type of teas. The processed tea is effectively mixed with essential oils from unique flower petals to give attractive fruit-flavored teas.
As peculiar as the name sounds, these teas are made from alternative methods of processing such as pan drying or steaming. Green tea in one such example.