For the last two months since we have left, we talked about India as THE country for tea, which reminds us saris, spices and colorful sceneries. We also talked about Nepal which does not always embody the concept of tea production but rather mountains, trekking and glorious history in Kathmandu… The beginning of our African road trip brings us to Malawi and we bet that it will not ring any bell for you! That’s true. First it is important to be able to locate it on the map and then you can start to think about the reasons which bring us to Malawi: Tea of course but not only. This is the first time that the Tea Travelers duo goes to Africa so it is full of interrogations and ready to be surprised by unexpected discoveries that we took the flight from Kathmandu to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. To be fair, we have been totally charmed by the country and the people. Smiley and helpful, they were always here to welcome us and help us in any occasion.
As we always do, we are using the local transportation way to travel around the country. In Malawi, the minibuses used as shared taxi are the most convenient and the cheapest way (but not the fastest and definitely the most packed). We even tested the mototaxis and the bike taxis. We do sometimes struggle to understand local habits but we have never been lost, as there is always someone happy to help us. It is really impressive how people smile all the time and everywhere waving hands for a « hello » or a « bye bye » (specially kids which tend to mix them up).
Malawi is a non touristic country, very poor as well but which is full of incredible places to visit and very different from one to the other. As it is common in East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa), the tourism offer is really premium and well above our backpackers budget. So we have tested a large panel of local motels and small restaurants. It comes with its own charm and discoveries but also its sacrifices on comfort. Malawian people are not very used to see travelers with low budget and we are a real object of curiosity. Furthermore, French people are not really present in Malawi. We are kind of exceptions. We were surprised that they were all aware of the French election and people asked us if we voted.
On the cuisine side, after 2 months of being almost vegetarian, we quickly adopted the national dish composed of grilled chicken and some Nsima (sort of white corn purée).
Our trip around Malawi brought us along the Malawi Lake shore where we have been seduced by the drinks in front of the sunset, the snorkeling sessions and the early morning meeting with fishermen. In the Liwonde national park, we met dozen of hippos and elephants. In the south of Malawi, we had the chance to do trek in the Mulanje massif, the biggest of the country. We spent 3 days alone at 2,000m.
So are you convinced ?
Did you know?
Malawi is an agricultural country (80% of the economy – mainly driven by tobacco, corn, coffee and tea). More of half of the population live below the poverty line and life expectation is really low (just above 50 years old). It is a small country surrounded by Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania and it is overloaded by a fast growing population of 16 million inhabitants. Malawi is a stable place where multiple ethnics and religions live together in harmony. It makes a safe environment to travel around.
Of course, the tea travelers roadbook does not aim to promote tourism in Malawi but we thought it was important to share this experience with you as tourism is key for Malawi and it is definitely worth it to travel in this wonderful country.
We have contacted several tea estates before our arrival but only one came back with a positive answer. We deep dived a little bit and we understood why : there are only 18 tea estates in Malawi and all of them produce CTC (standing for Crushing, Tearing, Curling) which means poor quality tea mainly dedicated to the big brand and the tea bags market such as Lipton, Tetleys or Finley. These big brands do not often open their factories to external visitors.
Did you know?
Out of the 18 tea estate in Malawi, only one is owned by a Malawian…whereas tea represents one of the main foreign currencies source for the country and bring jobs to millions of people in the country.
Luckily Satemwa Tea Etate invited us for a visit mainly focused on tea tasting as they also did not want us to see the factory.
Satemwa has a long and rich history built since 1923 when Mr Kay, a Scottish gentleman, has founded the tea estate couple of km away of Thyolo. Until now, 3 generations have followed his path and led the company to what it is today.
To start our discovery of the Malawian tea and reach out to Satemwa Tea Estate, we head towards the south of the country, the main region for tea production and specially the Mulanje area. We stop at Thyolo, tea « capital » of Malawi. Whereas we expected a town with colonial memories remembering the former British occupation similar to what Darjeeling can be, Thyolo is in reality a small local village just surrounded by hectares of tea fields. We start our investigation by couple of hikes in the fields around the village. This is the right time for plucking and lots of workers are active in the flashy green fields. We capture local life moments while the sun is going down during this late afternoon. The workers are coming home while trucks are going here and there to collect the harvest of the day before coming back to the factory for processing the leaves.
1st surprise : compared to what we have seen in Nepal and India, mainly men pluck in the fields. 2nde surprise : some of the workers are using sorts of big scissors to help them plucking (see photo).
It does indeed speed up the process but the quality of the harvest is definitely lower as, by this way, they pluck lots of leaves and not only the first 3 commonly used for top quality tea. As we are going further, we also notice women plucking by hand only the first two leaves. We deduct that it was for the orthodox production whereas the first one for CTC.
It is now time to go to Satemwa Tea Estate. The factory is right in the middle of the plantation which means for us couple of km to walk among the bushes. On the way, all the workers are doing their lunch break and welcome us by a “Hello, how are you?”. At the end, we meet the accounting manager of the factory which gives us a ride to the factory preventing us to be late!
Once arrived, Mr. Custom warmly welcomes us for the visit. He has always worked in the tea estate and has climbed every layer. He has learnt everything on the ground. He explains that the company works with 2,300 people during the high season (1,050 permanent workers). We are currently in the high season as we can see dozens of people plucking in the tea gardens. As the climate is different in East Africa compared to India or Nepal, the plucking schedule is also different. The high season runs from December to April during the rainy season to produce CTC tea. The plucking keeps going the all year long but with less production. The months which produce better quality tea are between May and September when the area receives less rain. For this reason, Satemwa produces most of its orthodox tea during this period.
As we also noticed in India and Nepal, the plucking is done by poor workers which settle in the tea areas during the rainy season and then move somewhere else to find jobs. They have to collect a minimum of 55kg per day to receive a salary of 1,200 kwachas (around 1.6€/day). During high season they can reach 100kg a day, 6 days a week.
A word on the tea bushes… it is mostly Camelia Assamica, planted by the British when Malawi was a colony. Malawi, similar to the Assam region in India, has been fully dedicated to mass tea production with poor quality which was then sold to big international corporations. Almost everything goes for exportation.
But let’s come back to Satemwa Tea Estate which tries to promote best quality tea in Malawi. The oldest bushes of the tea estate are dedicated to orthodox teas which some of them are handcrafted (their Oolong tea for instance). Satemwa is certified fair trade by the label Max Havellar. It takes care of its employees with for example 4 clinics, about 1,000 students school and couple of programs for women support…
Satemwa exports 95% of its teas. For the CTC part, it works with large internationals brands such as Twining, Tetley, Lipton or Finley. For the orthodox part, it works with small tea retailers around the globe mainly in Germany, the US or Belgium. For France, there is only one : Palais des thés.
After all these explanations, Mr. Custom prepared for us a tea tasting. In front of us, 15 different teas are just waiting to be tasted! White tea, CTC and orthodox black teas, green tea, Oolong and flavored teas… cannot wait to taste them all.
The quality of the proposed teas are quite different and we will focus here on the one we preferred :
Made for the tige, it is not rolled and no oxidation took place. This is the most expensive and we understood why.
Similar process as above but only with the leaves
Very different from other Oolong we already had the chance to try. Hand rolling, it is fully handcrafted and produce in small quantity.
Small holder OP1
This is our favorite black tea.
After the tasting, we had the chance to visit the lodge attached to the tea estate, the Huntington house. We finish by a long walk on the red ground path inside the gardens. The bushes are well aligned and it makes the sceneries beautiful for awesome pictures.
Malawi is a small producer in the tea industry but quite important for Africa, 2nd after Kenya. Tea Estates are growing also in Rwanda and Zimbabwe…maybe new competitors for Malawi. Satemwa is convinced that to add value and fight in the world competition it is necessary to produce good quality tea. This is why the owner is trying to increase the orthodox tea production. Let’s see where it brings them…