Africa’s contribution to global tea production escalates
Rwanda Sorwathe tea garden
Africa is home to thirteen tea-producing countries and their tea production is an essential part of the global tea economy, and in fact, represents the biggest share of the world’s tea exports. Investments targeting infrastructure, replanting, clearing new lands and new technologies are further strengthening tea production in Africa, positioning the individual countries for continued growth. By Barbara Dufrêne. All images courtesy of author.
Kenya is the third largest tea producer in the world and holds the leading spot in global tea exports followed by Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, which all contribute importantly to global trade. Continued investments aim to further develop this vital asset for their national economies by supplying even more teas to old and new customers.
It is worth noting, however, that tea is not native to Africa – commercial planting was introduced under colonial rule, with tea seeds from the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and Edinburgh and later from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India.The African tea-growing areas are mostly located in mountainous regions, with cool clean air and abundant rains. They stretch from the gentle hills of Cameroon in the West to the high plateaus and mountain slopes on both sides of the Great Rift Valley, that cuts steeply down through the East of the African continent.
According to London Tea Auction records, the first successful tea planting was carried out in Malawi, near Blantyre in 1878; followed by planting in Uganda and Rhodesia – Zimbabwe today- in 1900.The first tea planting in Kenya took place in 1904 with more tea planting starting in 1920 in Tanzania and Mozambique. Tea had been introduced to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean on an experimental basis as early as 1871 by a French settler, with commercial production initiated in 1891. Much later tea was introduced by Belgian settlers in Burundi in the 1930s, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the 1940s, and in Rwanda in the 1950s. In 1955, the Commonwealth Development Corporation started to grow tea in the coastal area of West Cameroon. Tea has been thriving all over with crops on a steady upward trend, generating prosperity through modern agri-technology and manufacturing methods that retain excellent quality for leaf and liquor.
The many political changes brought about after the end of World War II have shifted the remaining colonial rules. Between 1960 and 1961, all African countries had become independent nations, one by one. With some of the new borders cutting through ancestral territories, creating ethnic strife, civil war and undemocratic rulers generating political disorder, some severe disruptions have occurred in the period following independence, namely in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda, and Mozambique and more new nations were created through further territorial separations after long conflicts.
After independence, additional countries launched commercial tea cultivation, namely Zambia and South Africa in 1964 and Ethiopia in the 1970s. Today, there are 13 African nations that cultivate tea commercially. This crop is considered vital for generating export revenue and employment, whilst also providing good cups for a growing domestic demand.
Africa’s place in the global tea market
According to 2020 data published by the London based International Tea Committee (ITC), Africa’s 13 tea-producing countries generate a total production of 795,600 metric tonnes (mt) of tea. With a growth rate of +36.4 per cent over the past 10 years, the total African tea production represents, however, only 12.7 per cent of the world production, which is dominated by the giants China and India, with respective shares of 47 per cent and 20 per cent of the world’s total tea output.
Bearing in mind that in China and India, the domestic consumers drink most of their teas themselves, while the African tea-producing countries manufacture their teas first as an export revenue crop. African tea production has therefore grown into a vital part of the global tea economy and represents the biggest share of the world’s tea exports with a volume of 713,300 mt in 2020, i.e., 39 per cent of the internationally traded teas, compared to a share of 34 per cent in 2011.
It is important to underline the geographical location of the main East African tea areas—all are situated across and close to the equator, which allows for year-round plucking without any dormancy period, hence offering a continued supply of fresh teas all throughout the year. This highly attractive aspect has made African producers the number one supplier for several of the main black tea importing markets, namely Pakistan, Egypt and the United Kingdom. Kenyan teas have also started to gain a growing share of the Russian and United States markets.
African tea production by ranking
Kenya is the leading producer in Africa (and globally) with an output of 570,000 mt in 2020, up 50 per cent over the past 10 years. Uganda follows with an output of 66,400 mt in 2020, up 23 per cent since 2011. Malawi ranks third with an output of 45,200 mt, down by 4 per cent over the last 10 years due to adverse weather conditions. Rwanda is the fourth largest tea producer in Africa with a 2020 output of 33,000 mt, an increase of 37 per cent since 2011, and then Tanzania with a 2020 production volume of 28,500 mt, down 13 per cent since 2011. Zimbabwe is next with a 2020 production standing at 14,000 mt, down by 4 per cent since 2011, followed by Burundi, with a 2020 production of 11,200 mt, having grown by 60 per cent over the past 10 years. With a production below 7,000 mt in 2020, the six remaining tea-producing countries are Ethiopia, Mozambique, Cameroon, DRC, South Africa, and Mauritius.
To further increase tea production, new lands must be cleared for new plantations or old fields must be replanted with higher yielding new bushes or to densify intensely. In line with the various geographical settings and the availability of appropriate arable lands, certain countries have been able to significantly expand the areas planted with tea, whilst others could not. ITC data shows that tea acreage has expanded significantly over the past 10 years in Kenya, with 269,400 hectares (ha) under tea (up 43 per cent); in Uganda, with 46,500 ha (up 62 per cent); and in Rwanda, with 25,000 ha, (up 67 per cent). Reviewing the average yield rates of made tea per hectare gives additional means to appreciate the dynamics of the various national tea economies in Africa. Per ITC data for 2018-20, yield rates range from +/-2,500kg/ha in Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Mauritius, to +/-2,000 kg/ha in Kenya and Mozambique, to +/-1,500kg/ha in Cameroon, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania. The lowest yield rates are in Burundi, South Africa and DRC.
It has also been reported that foreign investment in the tea sector is on the rise, namely that the Japanese government is carrying out pilot production of green tea by providing instructions for planting that will allow the use of machinery for harvesting and for processing the leaf into quality green teas. There is also more investment from Sri Lanka, whilst China continues to invest in infrastructure, namely roads and port equipment, which are vital for transporting containers for export goods.
The Profile of African teas
The vast majority of the African tea production is black CTC tea, harvested from Camellia sinensis var assamica tea plants, brought originally from Assam, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the British Royal Botanical Gardens. More than 30 new cultivars have been developed over the past few decades by the East and Central African Tea Research Foundations (TRF) in Kericho, Kenya and in Mulanje, Malawi, which has widely improved yield, pest and drought resistance and, of course, cup quality. Dr Albert Chayanga, former head of the Central African Tea Research recalls that “the set of cultivars developed here in Malawi is famous for their bright red liquor and hence sought after for blending. We have shared some with our neighbours, Rwanda in particular, where these bushes prosper well too.”
With the remit of sharing information, networking and enhancing the upgrading of the identity and profile of the many African teas, the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA) based in Mombasa, Kenya, launched the first African Tea Convention in Mombasa, Kenya in 2011. The second was held in 2013 in Kigali, Rwanda, followed by the third in 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya and the fourth in Kampala, Uganda, in May 2019. After the disruption of the Covid pandemic, the 5th African Tea Convention will take place in Bujumbura, Burundi, 20-22 July this year.
CTC vs orthodox & specialty teas
With tea becoming the world’s number one brewed cup more than ten years ago, the trend towards more premiumisation, with more single origin and specialty leaf has now spread to Africa. For more than 20 years such premium cup strategies have been successfully applied by companies in Western ownership and hence with direct access to demanding Western consumer markets, the acknowledged pioneers being Sorwathe Ltd, established in 1975, in Kinihira, Rwanda and Satemwa Tea Estate, founded in 1923 in Thiolo, Malawi. Their outstanding specialty estate teas have been well promoted for many years now, have attracted attention and fetched rewards and awards.
The reputation built up by these East African branded premium cups from Malawi and Rwanda is now paving the way for other tea estates and other tea-market operators to focus on added value and target the niche market with high profile quality cups. For example, newcomer Empire Kenya EPZ, based in Mombasa, Kenya, has started to promote premium black tea blends and orthodox leaf teas under the brand Akina. Marketed with the motto ‘Buy Kenyan Tea’, Christine Simon runs the website and digital marketing. Enthusiastic about the development of this premium range, Simon recently returned from the UK where she presented the company and its premium tea range to the Kenyan High Commissioner in London. She indicated that Empire Kenya sources black and purple teas from several KTDA tea estates that have a well-established orthodox production line, whilst they must go through the Mombasa auction to buy premium CTC. According to the media, the auction’s monopoly for CTC teas is currently being challenged by the trade that feel that this constraint is counterproductive for further development and expansion
With the world recovering from the Covid pandemic, tea is very much in the consumers’ focus as they want genuine, healthy and zero calorie beverages and wish to advance sustainability and ethical trade. Bearing in mind the global warming that affects lower producing regions, the tea fields in Africa’s high plateaus may well become pivotal to global demand, for both the mainstream and the premium segment.
- 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].