Tea in Africa: Diverse and Growing Markets

The African tea market is thriving with tea production expanding in East and Central Africa, and with consumption growing in the North and the West of the continent. Now, producers in the varying tea-growing countries want to raise their profiles and conquer new markets.

By Barbara Dufrêne  Photos courtesy of Barbara Dufrêne

With their share of world tea exports up from 33 percent to 37 percent between 2007 and 2016, the African tea growers are major suppliers. Tea imports into North and West African countries are up by 25 percent and represent 20 percent of the global tea imports, with Egypt and Morocco ranking fourth and fifth on the scale.

Today, Africa grows 12 percent of the world’s teas, which amounted to 680,000 metric tonnes (mt) in 2016. However, most of the producing countries do not drink their teas but export them, hence contributing 37 percent to global tea exports in 2016, with Kenya being the top exporter. By comparison, China consumes 75 percent of its teas domestically, and India almost 80 percent. Thus, less than one third of the world’s teas produced are available for trade. (All data provided by the International Tea Committee.)

Although the African continent is the home of the coffee tree, with Arabica coffees originating from Ethiopia’s high plateau and Robusta coffees from the Congo rainforest, today there is more tea consumed locally than coffee, in terms of numbers of cups. With political independence in 1960-61 came the implementation of national agricultural policies focusing on exportable revenue crops, with tea and coffee high on the list wherever they prosper well. With a massive Muslim population in the North and West, formerly under the Ottoman Empire tea has become the favourite hot cup in the Maghreb and the Mashrak. Convenient to brew and soothing to sip, there is a strong preference for green tea in Morocco, but for black tea in Egypt with the other markets following either pattern and sometimes going for both, green and black. In 2016, African tea consumption amounted to 344,000 mt, which represents 20 percent of the global tea imports to which one needs to add the 30,000 mt of teas retained for home consumption in the producing countries.

According to the International Coffee Organization, (ICO) Africa produced 1.03 million mt of green coffee in 2015-16, which represents 11 percent of the world’s coffees, and consumed 647,600 mt, which represents 7 percent of world coffee consumption.

Tea Cultivation Continues to Increase Across the Continent

About 150 years ago the tea bush was introduced to Malawi first and then to the East African hills by British settlers, at first for their own consumption and later for commercial growing. Plant material mainly originated from British India and British Ceylon, selected mainly from the large leaf Assamica varieties. Soil and climate in the hills offered favourable conditions and the teas were highly appreciated for their cup colour and good flavour, well preparing the grounds for later days. After the end of the colonial rule in 1960-61, the new and independent African countries took over the management of their agricultural resources, with the world’s tea majors remaining involved as the owners of vast tea estates.

Tea research was actively taken over by local administration in Kenya’s Kericho Tea Research Foundation and in the Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa in Malawi. The East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA) was founded in 1957, and rapidly set up its own tea auction in Mombasa to run the sales of the East African teas, which had been traded through the London auction until then.

Kenya Remains the Biggest Producer

Kenya is by far the biggest African tea producer, with year-round harvesting due to its geographical position located right across the equator. The 11 distinct tea regions are spread across the high plains east and west of the Eastern Rift Valley; over two thirds of the production are supplied by smallholders and processed in 66 factories, managed by the parastatal Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). The remaining third is harvested on large estates, owned by tea multinationals such as Unilever, James Finley, Camellia PLC, and several private Kenyan companies.

Considered a major contributor to black tea blends (particularly to brisk breakfast tea blends that are drunk with milk) for generations, Kenyan tea growers have geared up marketing efforts. Now, it is common to find Pure Kenya single origin teas on the supermarket shelves. There is an ongoing trend toward diversification with the introduction of some orthodox black teas and some green teas and only a few months ago a new white tea from Kenya’s Nandi Hills was brought to Western markets.

Launched in 2013, after 20 years of research in cooperation with the Tea Research Institute in Jorhat, Assam, India, the unique Kenyan Purple Tea cultivar TRFK 306/1 is now yielding its first commercial harvests. So far available in small volumes only, the new purple teas have reached the western markets and surprise with their pale purple cups and subtle vegetal flavour. They are sought after for their high anthocyanine content that reportedly offers powerful antioxidant effects.

With a booming and healthy tea industry that has been continuously expanding for over 100 years the country will certainly keep its leading position.

Uganda: Still in a Recovery Period

Uganda, the second biggest African tea producer, is still recovering from the chaos and destructive mismanagement that had been caused by Idi Amin’s reign from 1971 to 1981. Possessing good volcanic soils in high altitude and favourable climate – comparable to Kenya, its neighbour in the tea industry – Uganda had a promising start in its post-colonial economy. In 1981, however, it was totally devastated with output down to only five percent of the volume harvested 10 years earlier. With the help of Commonwealth funds and the expertise of James Finlay, the estates were gradually restored and today production is thriving again and expected to grow further.

According to Will Battle, the author of the recently published World Tea Encyclopaedia and CEO of Fine Tea Merchants, the old bushes continue to improve their output and new areas are planted with high yield varietals. Although not yet considered as a quality producer, Ugandan teas are an important input for the blends that are appreciated in Egypt and Pakistan. Over the coming years with skills and technology improving the quality is expected to move up step by step. Uganda’s truly humid climate may make its year-round tea harvests more resistant to climate change, which could be an asset for further development.

Malawi: Tea is a Vital Crop

Malawi, the first country to produce tea in Africa, belongs to the big three and since the start has been part of all the major British tea blends because of the deep red tinge that its teas give to the cup. Landlocked and with limited arable areas available, tea is a vital crop for Malawi, together with sugar and tobacco, the three cash crops that earn the badly needed foreign currency. The Tea Research Foundation (TRF) in Mulanje has worked hard to produce appropriate cultivars. “To date we have developed 26 cultivars, high yielding and with good drought resistance, which is key for our rather dry climate here,” said Dr Albert Chayanga, who was in charge of the TRF until recently and has now moved on to tobacco. “All our cultivars yield leaves that produce bright red liquor. We have shared some of them with Rwanda and other producers, with very positive results.”

In recent years, there has been a new plan to attract better revenue for the tea workers through tea tourism and the launch of some new high-quality specialty teas. The initiative originates from Satemwa Tea Company, founded by a British tea planter in the early 20th century and run today by Alexander Kay. Their tea estate is the highest in altitude, located near the Thyolo Hills. There they started to grow some specialty tea cultivars to make artisanal handmade premium teas. Thus, Western consumers have recently been discovering some fine green, wulong and even white teas from Malawi, attracting attention to the country’s tea economy and giving it a higher profile.

“This will certainly always remain a small volume, but the good prices fetched by these new handmade teas are a great encouragement and highly rewarding for our farmers,” confirmed Kay.

The remaining ten African tea producers all continue to expand acreage (see sidebar on page 24) and continue to produce mainly black CTC for blending. Amongst them, Rwanda stands out as it has been offering remarkable premium quality and terroir teas, as well as organic teas for some years now.

Working to Gain New Recognition

The new African tea hub today is Morocco, the world’s leading importer of Chinese green tea, with an ever-growing volume, which amounted to 67,300 mt in 2016. This trend towards more green tea consumption is expanding due to the active marketing of Damandis, Morocco’s biggest tea packer, with Chinese tea delegations visiting to woo these new markets directly. Tea is clearly the favourite hot cup in all North and West African countries and imports continue to rise.

The growing importance of tea in the African market has generated the desire for more visibility and more recognition. This was followed up by creating a new platform through calling up the First African Tea Convention in Mombasa in 2011, followed by the second in Kigali in 2013 and the third in Nairobi, in May 2017.

The targets are to upgrade product quality first and then to enhance product profile through more origin branding, in order to improve revenue and conquer new consumer markets. This translates into new offers of orthodox, specialty and terroir teas, to date mainly from Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi, with Tanzania also picking up the trend. Most of these new teas were unheard of until a few years ago, but today they can be found in Europe, with a wide choice on display in the recently opened colourful African House of Tea in the centre of Paris.

The challenges are firstly the unpredictable weather patterns and the threats of losing tea land areas through climate change. Furthermore, the issue of labour shortage and how to manage the most appropriate transition towards partial or total mechanization is a highly sensitive and high priority topic.

Both items are global concerns and will therefore certainly be on the agenda of the forthcoming FAO Intergovernmental Group for Tea, which will convene for its 23rd Plenary Session in Hangzhou, China in May 2018.

Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrêne @orange.fr.

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