There is something about being on a tea plantation that warms teagirl’s heart. It’s always a reminder of the true core and purpose of the business we all work in. Walking through tea fields. Seeing tea pluckers. Seeing the work being done in the factory; and hearing the tea garden manager speak. These are all the elements that are at the fundamental core of our business.

Today teaigrl’s heart was indeed warmed – as we visited a truly special tea estate – Satemwa. It traces it’s history back to1928, when Maclean Kay, came from Scotland and purchased land from a tobacco farmer in order to produce tea.

For teagirl, what was most fascinating about Satemwa however, is in what it has done in creating a truly unique specialty tea line; what they call ‘Farm Stall’. I know, Malawi is not the country we associate with specialty tea. And teagirl does admit that she was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see the selection laid out for us to taste. From white to green to oolong and black, smoked tea, aged post-fermented tea and even herbals.

When I saw the selection, I did assume that they had brought in a specialist from one of the producing countries to help develop this line. But they had not. What was in front of me was a true labour of love. A recognition of the opportunity within this ever growing sector and a commitment to making it work with the varietals that exist.

Alexander, the grandson of Maclean, has created truly special teas that stand proud to what they represent. A white tea that is delicate and smooth. A green tea that is vegetative with a subtle sweetness. An oolong that is toasty and nutty. All however, with it’s own unique quality of being from Malawi.

The estate also does a lot of work with smallholders – small growers that sell their green leaf to the factory – which in and of itself is not unique to the Malawian model. What Satemwa does however that is unique is maintain the connection to that smallholder in its end product. So a beautiful leaf black tea that can be traced back to a particular grower in the region.

I raise my hat to the work being done on this estate. They have created a model based on sustainable agricultural practices, catering to the traditional tea industry as well as establishing this uniquely Malawian specialty tea brand.

Chapeau! To each and every one involved. Because today, it was not only teagirl’s heart that was warmed for being on a tea estate; but it was also an important lesson: you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.

As most of you know, I teach a lot of tea classes…and give a lot of talks on tea.  The one thing I premise all my talks with is the following:  ‘I do not know everything about tea.  Nobody does.  Remember that humility’.  And today, I think, every single person that was a part of our events, was reminded of that.

I led an afternoon session today in Malawi, hosted by the Tea Association of Malawi, attended by Managing Directors, Buyers and Growers of the tea estates – on cupping (tasting tea) as well as food pairing.  What could teagirl possibly teach people who have been in the industry far longer than I have??  That, I am certain, was the thought on everyone’s mind as they came to the event.

Our afternoon started with a cupping – as you see in the picture above.  Not a cupping of teas from Malawi, as was perhaps expected.  But a cupping of the large variety of teas we enjoy in the North American market – white, green, oolong, black, jasmine, lapsang soughong, pu-erh.  With some skepticism and a lot of curiosity, everyone, smelled and tasted – and enjoyed.  Full of questions about teas they are not normally exposed to.

We followed the cupping with another new approach to tea – tea and food pairing.  This time with teas from Malawi.  Explaining the principals behind flavour and pairings, I took my audience through options and ideas and combinations.  Were there raised eyebrows at this new approach?  Yes.  Were they however eager to try it and be open to it?  Again…yes!

The afternoon then took a turn, it was the turn of the Tea Association of Malawi to feature the teas of Malawi – preparing a cupping (tea tasting) of what they had to offer.  And teagirl tasted – and teagirl was full of questions…and teagirl learned.  I am richer for it.

That is the humility I want all of us to remember.  This industry is so rich and so vibrant – and it remains that way so long as we remember that we all have something to learn from eachother.

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Sometimes in the tea industry, we get wrapped up in our day to day and lose sight of the fact that we all work for the same industry.  On occasion, we all put aside that day to day and come together as a group to discuss the issues faced by tea and put our heads together to find solutions.  Today was such a day in Malawi.

I made the long trip to beautiful Malawi at the invitation of WUSC – World University Service of Canada.  They are a Canadian NGO whose work is focused on international development.  A series of workshops have been organized by WUSC in order to help facilitate a better understanding of the Canadian tea industry.  That means that over these few days, we are meeting with a series of participants within the tea industry in Malawi giving presentations and having discussions to help better understand our market.

Today was one of those meetings.  And for a moment this morning, when I walked into the conference room, I stopped and reflected on the fact that as fragmented as we sometimes are in this industry, there are times when we come together to help each other.  My audience today included smallholders (growers), Chairmen’s of the largest tea estates, buyers, brokers, as well as the Principal Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture.  It doesn’t get more broad than that.

It was a good reminder however, I hope, for everyone that was in that room.  That no matter what part of the industry we stand, we are all working for the good of one thing…the tea leaf…and specifically today…tea in Malawi.  Because the reality is, that the issues of gender equality, youth employment, living wages can’t be solved by one sector alone.

 

 

Teagirl is on another adventure.  This time my journey takes me to far away Africa – specifically…Malawi.  A small landlocked country towards the south-eastern corner of Africa. Why Malawi, teagirl?  Because Tea is the second largest export for Malawi.  Because Malawi represents about 3% of the world’s tea production.  3% may not seem like much….but consider this, Japan, which most of you think of as being central to the specialty tea market, makes up a poriton of 1% of the entire world production.  That’s right, not even a whole percentage – a portion of 1%.  So yes, we need to pay attention to some of these countries not on our radar producing beautiful teas.

There are a number of reasons I am here.  And I hope you come on this journey with me.  Because it’s a journey not only in understanding the value of tea from Malawi – beyond what it is being used for now…largely blending.  But also in dissecting some of the challenges we face within the tea industry – empowering women, younger workers (18-34) and providing living wages for workers.

This journey started as all should, which is a taste of the beautiful country of which I am a guest for the next few days.  A rocky drive up to the Zomba plateau – witnessing the majestic beauty of a country relatively small compared to some of its neighbours.

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Malawi may not be rich by our modern measures of rich.  But it is rich in so many more ways.  It is rich in beauty.  It is rich in history.  And it is rich in the kindness of its people.  It was the pioneers within the great African continent to start with tea, but it has today, many challenges facing it.  Challenges, that many producing countries within the tea industry face.

Stay with me on this journey.  Discover some of the beautiful flavours produced out of Africa.  And I hope that along the way, together, we’ll try to muddle our way through the complexities that face this fragile labour market producing your beautiful cup of tea.