Africa Dominates World Tea Exports, While Still Evolving

A tea farm in Kericho Kenya

With Kenya leading, Uganda catching up, and Rwanda and Burundi continuing to invest, there remains growth potential to satisfy demand from established and new customers. By Barbara Dufrêne

The African tea areas are scattered from the gentle hills of Cameroon in the West to the high plateaus and mountain slopes on both sides of the Great Rift, which cuts steeply down through the East of the African continent. The development of commercial tea planting was mainly carried out under colonial rule. Thus, tea was planted by British settlers in the early years of the 20th century in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania, and launched in Zimbabwe in the 1920s and in the West Cameroons in the 1950s. Tea was planted by Portuguese settlers in Mozambique in the 1930s, and by Belgian settlers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the 1940s, in Burundi in the 1930s and in Rwanda in the 1950s.

The colonial era ended in 1960-61, with all the African countries becoming independent nations. Some started commercial tea cultivation after independence, namely Zambia and South Africa in 1964 and Ethiopia in the 1970s. There is also some tea growing on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, which was introduced by French colonial administrators in 1840.

One needs to understand the significance of this colonial heritage, which became key for export revenue and employment for many of these new nations. With some of the new borders crossing into ancestral territories, creating ethnic strife and civil war and undemocratic rulers generating political disorder, some severe disruptions have occurred in the period following independence, namely in the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Mozambique, and more new nations were created through separations after long conflicts. However, the scars are gradually healing, and the crops have been picking up, such as coffee thriving again in South Sudan and tea cultivation having been revived in Uganda, expanding fast in Rwanda and also prospering again in Mozambique.

Vital Part of the Global Tea Market

Africa’s 14 tea-producing countries come up with a total production of 654,000 tons of tea in 2017. While showing a growth rate of 25.8 percent over the past 10 years, the total African tea production represents only 11.2 percent of the world production of tea, which is dominated by China and India. (All data in this article are sourced from the London-based International Tea Committee.)

However, China and India drink most of their teas themselves, while the African tea-producing countries do not have any tea-drinking traditions and consider their teas first as an export crop. Therefore, African tea production has become a vital part of the global tea economy and represents the biggest share of the world’s tea exports with 587,000 metric tonnes in 2017, ie 33 percent of internationally traded teas.

Close to 99 percent of the African tea production is black CTC tea, harvested from Camellia sinensis var assamica tea plants, brought originally from Assam, Ceylon and the British Royal Botanical Gardens. More than 30 cultivars have been developed during the last decades by the two African Tea Research Foundations (TRF) in Kericho, Kenya and Mulanje, Malawi.

The geographical location of the main East African tea areas across and close to the equator allows for year-round plucking, and therefore a continued supply of fresh teas. According to Will Battle, author of The World Tea Encyclopaedia, issued in 2017, and owner of Fine Tea Merchants Ltd, located in Lincoln, England, “There is great potential in particular in the countries close to the equator, which produce tea throughout the year appealing to cash-conscious buyers who may be put off by the financial constraint that comes with holding large stocks of seasonal teas from the traditional northern hemisphere Asian producers. African producers have become the number one supplier for several of the main black tea importing markets including Pakistan, Egypt and the United Kingdom. Kenyan tea is also growing from a small base to gradually claim a more significant share of the Russian and USA markets.”

Although Africa’s teas are grown first as an export crop, domestic consumption has been fostered and is growing steadily. Kenya has experienced spectacular increases with consumption more than doubling over the past ten years and growing threefold in Uganda during the same period. In 2017, African tea producers together retained 67,000 tonnes for their domestic consumption, which represent 10 percent of their teas. This compares to 9 percent retained for domestic consumption in Sri Lanka and in Argentina, whilst China retains 86 percent and India 81 percent for their home market tea drinkers.

Battle, who has been in the tea trade for more than 30 years, said that “there is still significant opportunity to increase production acreage, especially through the smallholder sector, while research is delivering cultivars with higher yield and quality potential. With India and China continuing to gear up domestic consumption, the pivotal position of Africa will grow even stronger.”

With the goal of upgrading the identity and profile of the various African teas, Kenya, together with the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA), launched the 1st African Tea Convention in Mombasa, Kenya in 2011, followed by the second in 2013 in Kigali, Rwanda, and the third took in 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya. The 4th African Tea Convention is scheduled to take place in Kampala, Uganda from 29-31 May 2019.

Tea research is also actively pursued both by Kenya’s Tea Research Foundation (TRF) in Kericho and by the TRF of Central Africa in Mulanje, Malawi, with the main focus on improving yield and pest resistance whilst enhancing cup quality and creating new attractive cultivars and with the even more urgent remit of coping with the various threats generated by climate change.

In this context the 2nd African Tea Science Symposium (ATSS) took place in Nyere, Kenya in November 2018, with the participation of many highly qualified local tea scientists and experts and also guests from China, India, Sri Lanka and Europe to discuss innovative technologies in tea production, product diversification and value addition, the health benefits of tea, the means to combat climate change and the socioeconomic issues for improving smallholder tea farming.

Quality Varies Among the Top Three

While production is growing in Africa’s top three producing countries – Kenya, Uganda and Malawi – quality varies greatly.

Kenya has rapidly become the leading African tea producer and boasted an output of 440,000 tonnes of tea in 2017. Well suited soil in high altitudes have allowed for continued expansion of tea growing, skillfully managed by the British majors, Finlays and Brooke Bond, from 1920 onwards, together with a fast-developing smallholder sector.

After many years of competing closely with Sri Lanka, Kenya became the world’s leading tea exporter in 2004. The 416,000 tonnes exported in 2017 represented 23 percent of the world’s internationally traded teas. Tea production is shared out roughly between the big estates owned by overseas companies: 44 percent of the volume and the smallholders federated within the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), and 56 percent by some recently founded privately owned new Kenyan companies.

The world’s biggest tea auction centre was set up in Mombasa, the port on the Indian Ocean, by the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA) in 1957, where the brisk and fresh black Kenyan CTC teas are shipped to their consumer markets. In recent years, efforts have been developed to upgrade the teas’ profiles in order to reap more added value; first by giving high grown Kenyan teas more status as a key ingredient of breakfast blends and invigorating milk teas, and second, by carving out a bigger single origin retail offer, which has been on the shelves in the UK for a while, namely under the Marks & Spencer brand. Recently, Kenya has been promoting some specialty orthodox teas produced by selected tea gardens and tea factories such as Milima GBOP near Kericho, west of the Rift, and white teas from Kangaita on the slopes of Mt Kenya, east of the Rift.

In order to generate more added value, the Kenyan government is currently discussing new legislation that aims to identify and register precise product origin for coffees and teas, and to reduce the shipping of bulk teas through supporting more local retail packing and branding. Another step into this direction was the long-awaited launch of TRFK 306/1, commonly called Kenya Purple Tea, which is drought and frost resistant, has beautifully coloured leaves and is reported to possess strong antioxidant properties due to the leaves’ high anthocyanin content.

Manuja Peiris, the chief executive of the International Tea Committee (ITC), regularly visits the African tea-producing countries to follow their market developments. He wonders about the continuous focus on production growth without sufficient marketing efforts based on origin identity and the lack of incentives for creating the proper business environment in order to encourage value addition. He also wonders about the glaring absence of attendance and presence of Kenya’s fine teas at major international tea expos and trade fairs, which is important for establishing visibility and reputation, for moving away from volume to value criteria. Today, one finds good black teas from India and Sri Lanka in China, but African exporters have been slow to wake up to the potential of this market.

Uganda is Africa’s second biggest tea producer with a 2017 production of 54,000 tonnes. Bestowed with soil and climate conditions similar to those of neighbouring Kenya, the country had a promising start of tea cultivation during the early years of 1900. Unfortunately, in the 1970s the newly independent country suffered the devastation of a military dictatorship, creating close to political anarchy under Idi Amin Dada, which virtually ruined almost all the country’s industrial and agricultural structures. When Amin fled to Libya in 1981, the tea sector was in shambles. It has taken years of foreign investment, Commonwealth development funding and the expertise of James Finlay to start repairing and rehabilitating the former impressive estates.

With an output reduced to just 5,000 tonnes in 1989, which grew to 25,000t in 1999 after the restoring of private property in 1994, Uganda is back to former levels of output, though not yet with great quality. The soft and unexceptional liquor of the Ugandan teas, however, are well appreciated by Egypt’s and Pakistan’s tea consumers. With a rather wet and damp climate, Uganda’s tea areas have reliable potential to resist climate change and the outlook for more volume is bright. Those who know the excellent volcanic soils and wet climatic conditions expect quality to improve steadily, allowing these teas to carve out their distinct profile and market niche.

Malawi is Africa’s most venerable producer, where commercial tea planting was launched as early as 1878 in Blantyre. Volume wise, Malawi ranks third among African nations, with an output of 45,500 tonnes in 2017. The country has two distinct tea regions, around Thyolo at an altitude of 820m and around Mulanje, at an altitude of 620m, near the Mozambique boarder. The tea trade flourished during the first half of the 20th century as Malawi’s best teas were produced in November and December, providing supply during the winter season in Assam.

But in 1962, while Kenya’s tea production was rapidly expanding, Malawi’s limited tea areas and the issue of insufficient rainfall prohibited further expansion. Malawi’s teas have beautifully red liquoring and therefore are keenly purchased for quality blends as they turn less colourful Assam teas into shiny breakfast cups. This attractive colouring has been developed in several quality cultivars by the TRF in Mulanje and introduced in neighbouring countries, Rwanda in particular.

Growth of Specialty & Premium Teas

With the ongoing trend for premiumisation and specialty and terroir teas that developed with China’s return to the market in the 1990s, all tea-producing countries have started to explore the best means to join the party: the black tea producers compete for the best green, white and wulong teas, while the green tea producers explore the making of fine black teas.

A recently published book 116 Terroir Tea Portraits, by Lydia Gautier, a French agronomist, tea expert and premium tea hunter, presents a selection of 116 terroir teas, of which ten are harvested and manufactured in Africa: purple tea from Kenya, Kibalé green tea from Uganda, Sorwathé green tea from Rwanda, Congo-Nile ridge black tea from Burundi, Iringa green tea from Tanzania, Satemwa white tea from Malawi, Luapula black tea from Zambia, Mount Namuli black tea from Mozambique, and vanilla black tea from Bois Cheri in Mauritius.

While the above listed and described terroir teas together with more origin teas represent tiny volumes, they are proof of great skill and manufacturing know-how, good plant material and creativity. This demonstrates the companies’ capabilities to launch and market attractive new and premium teas from non-traditional origins in order to respond to the demand of interested and educated consumers, bringing the benefits of reputation, promotion and good prices to the entire value chain.

With this premium segment growing on one side and the global demand for high quality CTC black teas also on the rise, as reported by the ITC’s Peiris, from his recent African travels, one may conclude that the future looks bright for Africa’s teas.

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-dufrê[email protected].

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