General Inspiration Journal Tea Tea Education

The Warm Heart of Africa – reflections

There is much that was discussed during my short time in Malawi.  The primary reason I was there was to help provide a framework and information on the Canadian tea industry and opportunities within the specialty tea sector.  But all in all, there were a lot of goals that were tossed around – empowering smallholders, acquiring a living wage for workers, empowerment of women.

All of these concepts are lofty and worthy.  But they are not simple goals nor are they goals that can be achieved in isolation.  Because every country faces similar challenges when trying to address these issues.

Let’s start with living wages.  Living wages, by definition, is the amount of money required to live based on the actual cost of living – it is not the minimum wage.  We like, in the west, to go to developing countries – or in the tea industry, producing countries – and reprimand them for not providing their workers with a living wage.  But let’s for one moment take a step back.  The living wage in Toronto is about $18.50/hr.  The minimum  wage is $11.25.  Slight disconnect.  We rank 12th out of 17 peer countries when it comes to income inequality.

Let’s look at the empowerment of women.  Are women in producing countries in positions of power…likely not.  In Canada however, according to the last numbers collected by Statistics Canada, women represented 47.2% of the workforce.  When it comes to income earned however, women earn $0.72 to every dollar earned by a man and in 2014 there was only one woman CEO on the Canadian TSX.  Again – disconnect.

When we look at issues such as living wages, the empowerment of women and increased prices for smallholders, we need to be genuine about our intentions – and by that I mean, looking at realistically and honestly, the entire picture.  The tea industry is made up of multiple layers – starting with the smallholder (the farmer that grows green leaf and sells it to the producer), producers (who take that green leaf and manufacture it to a made product, the buyers (who purchase that made tea and sell it to various packers on the international tea market), the packers (who pack that made tea, often adding value by blending, into teabags, boxing and making it market ready), the retailers (who purchase the finished product to put on their grocery store shelves), the consumer (who purchases the product for final consumption).  So how can we look at only one portion of this chain and try and fix a problem(s) that is far more complex than we sometimes like to pretend it is.

I’ve shown you that living wages and the empowerment of women are issues faced throughout the world…not a simple problem.  So how can we assume that it is a simple problem in producing countries.  Prices paid for tea are part of an entire chain, so again, how can we assume that it can be fixed by only looking at one link in the chain.

When consumers in the west have been conditioned to shop for bargains – looking for 2 for 1 deals on their tea, purchasing a box of 100 teabags for $5, where do we think the margin is on that product?  When retailers are selling that box of 100 teabags for $5, how much do we think they are willing/able to pay the packer who has made that product?  How much do we think is left for that packer to pay the buyer.  And how much is left from that piece of the pie for the buyer to pay the producer and in the end…the producer to pay the smallholder.  And yet we continue to go at the producers in developing countries accusing them of not paying smallholders enough for their green leaf.  And the truth is that they don’t.  But the problem didn’t start there.  The problem is with us.  Discount shopping = Discount wages.

It is each and every one of us that is a part of the problem.  And until we accept that responsibility, all attempts at solving the injustices we see will continue to fail.



General Inspiration Journal Tea Tea Education

The Warm Heart of Africa – Day 4

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.

General Inspiration Journal Tea Tea Education

The Warm Heart of Africa – Day 3

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.



Inspiration Journal Tea Tea Education

The Warm Heart of Africa – Day 2

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.



General Inspiration Journal Tea Tea Education

The Warm Heart of Africa – Day 1

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.


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.

General Journal Tea Tea Education

A Weekend with Lovers of Tea

What a lovely weekend I have had.  Tea drinkers have a fundamental element in common…they actually LOVE tea.  Ask a tea drinker why they drink tea and I promise you the reaction will be:  a big smile, and some sort of emotional response – it makes them feel good, it’s comforting, it reminds them of their mother/grandmother, etc.  Tea drinkers WANT tea, whereas coffee drinkers NEED coffee.  Those are two very different statements – one is an emotional response and the second is one of necessity.

It’s like we’ve all fallen into a cult and just can’t seem to get enough.  This weekend, tea lovers gathered at the Toronto Reference library for the Toronto Tea Festival.  A weekend of tea, tea books, tea macarons, tea talks and tea ceremonies.  The festival had everything to offer – from the finest teas from around the world, experts sharing their knowledge of tea and even a machine that will blend your tea and make you a cup all at the same time!

We thoroughly enjoyed our time, mixing with our customers, with some of our fabulous teas – and I did what I love doing best – sharing my love of tea at my talk:  Wellness Tea.  We featured some of our favourite wellness teas at the show this year:  Sencha Kiwi Garden, Fields of Peaches, Sunshine Mate, Citrus Sunburst, Yellow Dragon PuEhr, Rooibos Sweet Embrace.

Thank you to all of you that attended.  And for those of you that missed it…sign up for one of our events or browse our website for all our delicious teas

Journal Tea Tea Education


A festival dedicated just to tea?  Yes!  This weekend in Toronto.  Get in out of the cold and come visit our booth – try some fabulous teas – and get some amazing products at festival special prices.  And…best of all…teagirl will be giving a talk on Wellness Tea on Sunday February 1st from 11-12.

See you all on Sunday 🙂

Journal Tea Tea Education

Weekend recap

What a weekend! I hope that some of you got a chance to stop by and say hello to us at Abbey’s Kitchen Stadium event this past Sunday. It was great fun and honor to be one of the proud sponsors and of course a part of a great cause (all proceeds go to support the My Food My Way youth nutrition education program). Abbey’s Kitchen Stadium yet again brought an amazing line up of up and coming chefs of Toronto that blew us all away: Andres Marquez/Howard Dubrowsky of Fonda Lola, Rodney Bowers of Hey Meatball & Food Network, Peter Ramsay of the *NEW* Geraldine, Jesse Vallins of The Saint.  And of course the event could not have been complete without the lovely panel of judges: Trish Magwood, Mike Chalut, Vita Chambers and Maggie McKeown!

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Battle Two blew us away. The food was absolutely fantastic and the secret ingredient this time….pickles! From pickled soup to tortillas with pickles the winner ended up being a master of turning something traditional into something new, tasty and exciting – Rodney Bowers of Hey Meatball with his legendary meatball sandwich and of course pickles, don’t forget the pickles! Delicious simply doesn’t cut it, believe me. Not only was the day filled with yummy treats, the music was phenomenal. Special guest and judge, Vita Chambers performed a beautiful ballad that left our stomachs hungry for more.

We were also very happy to chat with a few of you who came to say hello at our Tea Emporium stand – I hope you all enjoyed our refreshing iced teas! If you missed the first two rounds, do not despair, round three is on its way – more food, drinks, music and raffle prizes to come and of course more of our Summer Iced Teas!



I also wanted to mention the CAWEE Afternoon Tea event that was held this past Friday at the King Edward Hotel, where I was honored to give a speech on a brief history of tea! It was also amazing to hear some inspirational stories from other women entrepreneurs and executives – quick shout out to Julie Ellis, co-founder of Mabel’s Labels and Ellen Roseman, journalist and author of “Fight Back”, both of whom gave a few useful business tricks and tips we all enjoyed. And of course it was a pleasure to meet and network with other vibrant and talented women in the business industry while nibbling on savoury finger sandwiches (tomato confit with cucumber goat cheese and fresh basil was phenomenal) and delicate pastries (lemon posset with muddled bumblerries, yum!) It was a perfect afternoon, and I am so happy to have been a part of it.




Follow Us Inspiration News Tea Education

Viva Las Vegas!

The Tea Emporium took part at the Las Vegas Convention Centre for the World Tea Expo just this past weekend, from June the 1st to the 3rd. Here is a small smattering of the many photos that were taken during the three-day event.

Shabnam Weber delivered a talk on the morning of the 1st. ‘How to Compete with the Big Guys‘ was the title of her presentation,  and her aim was to give those who own small tea shops a leg up against some of the bigger tea companies who want to open a chain of stores in every corner, Starbucks-style.


One of the highlights of her trip was meeting the legendary James Norwood Pratt of Tea Society Classics. His article, Love the Leaf (Why and How Coffee Shops Should Do Tea), is one of the many articles this widely-read author on tea has written. Julie Beals, editor-in-chief of Fresh Cup Magazine, writes of James, “After a short time with Norwood, one becomes imbued with the notion of tea as poetry, both being art forms that require reverence and reflection to fully appreciate.” A thorough reading of his many articles and literature on tea proves exactly this.

As Shabnam approached James Norwood Pratt to say hello, there was a look of recognition from the man himself, evidently aware of the work Shabnam Weber does with the Tea Sommelier Program in Canada. James has even expressed interest in taking her course, much to an incredulous Shabnam, who exclaimed, “There is absolutely nothing I can teach you about tea! Nothing!”

Laughs and smiles were shared, as evidenced by this very star-struck Shabnam, who describes her meeting James Norwood Pratt as something akin to meeting The Beatles.


And they say tea drinkers don’t know how to have fun… 😉


General Health Tea Tea Education

The Power of Tea

One more…this one I believe is still being edited – so we’ll re-post when we see the final version – but this version is already brilliant!]