Two years after our long trip around tea through the tea estates of Asia and Africa, we are excited to improve our knowledge of African tea. During our visit to Dammann Frères, the tea experts told us about the emergence of Rwanda, which was starting to produce good quality tea. Decision is made: our next destination will be Rwanda but also Uganda, its big neighbor.

During our research, we found few plantations to contact in Rwanda but we took our chance by sending several requests. Luckily, we get a positive response from Sorwathé, a tea estate managed by Rohith Peiris. On July 2019, we finally take off for Rwanda and Uganda!

The evocation of Rwanda is unfortunately still too linked to the terrible genocide which took place in 1994. However this small country (5% of the surface of France) also called “the country of 1000 hills” has a lot to offer: in the middle of the Great Lakes region and the African rift, Rwanda is the home of high volcanoes of over 3000 meters where live some of the last mountain gorillas, huge lakes and a very animated hilly landscape with its 12 million inhabitants. And for the last undecideds who fear the security problems, no worries, Rwanda is by far the safest country we have visited for the moment in Africa!
After a few relaxing days on the shore of the Lake Kivu, the natural border between the Republic of Congo and Rwanda, we take a bus to the city named Nyirangarama. After a buffet in a local restaurant (not even afraid!) we find François, the driver of M Peiris, who will drive us to the factory and the Guest House. In a mixture of French and English we exchange with François on the daily life in a tea estate.

Did you know ?

As Rwanda was a former Belgian colony, many Rwandans still speak French. Following the independence but also because of the controversial role of France during the genocide of Tutsis, the French language has lost its aura and the younger generation is turning more and more to English.

The road becomes stony, the red soil of East Africa makes its appearance. It covers everything: the leaves of shrubs and tea trees, the bodyworks, our bags, clothes, our shoes … We cross large plains covered with tea. These large plains are embedded in several hills, some of where some tea grew. François explains that these fields belong to small owners organized in a cooperative named Assopthé. The cooperative sells all its leaves to the Sorwathé factory, which represents 75% of the volume harvested. The remaining 25% of leaves are picked on plantations owned directly by Sorwathé.

On the way, we run into tea pickers. In the queue, they wait with their huge bags full of fresh leaves to be weighed. The weight is written in a big register kept religiously by an employee of the cooperative. After weighing, the leaves are spread on the ground. François explains that the tea pickers (mostly women) work in the plantations 4 times a week and pluck an average of 40kg per day.

Mathematical statement, primary school : At 35 Rwandan francs per kilo (or 0.034 € per kilogram), 4 days of harvest per week, 40 kilograms per harvest, how much does a Rwandan tea picker earn per month?

We let you do the mathematics but here, as elsewhere, tea pickers do not have an easy life.

The months of July and August represent the low season. In the dry season the volume of leaves harvested represents only half of what can be harvested in high season!

We leave the plains and start climbing a hill. We arrive at a village with its hospital, schools and nursery for tea plants. We arrive in the front of a large gate that protects the access to the main building: the factory of Sorwathé. A decorative fountain borders the parking: a huge teapot pours brown water into a cup with the mention “a cup of Sorwathé”. It is now sure : We are at the right place!

We leave our bags at the Guest House and we directly go to the office of the Director General: Rohith Peiris. M. Peiris is Sri Lankan and has been leading the plantation for 11 years. Sorwathé is owned by an US company named Tea Importers. M. Joe Wertheim started to invest in Rwandan tea in the 1960s by planting Camelia Assamica. The factory was built in 1975 and Sorwathé is today one of the largest tea estate in Rwanda and the only one in this region.

The company gives job to 2 500 people (employees within the company) and indirectly the 4 500 farmers who form the cooperative Assopthé. Involved in fair trade (including Fair Trade certification), Sorwathé has built several programs for the local population to improve living conditions: construction of a nursery per year, scholarships for schoolchildren, computer’s room,…

Moreover, Sorwathé helps the cooperative to train the farmers and also to assist the farmers who want to transform their lands into a tea plantation. Rwanda has a small area with a large number of inhabitants and therefore a very high density. The land is shared by thousands of small farmers, the demand for tea is strong but the extension is difficult. The reconversion of farmland into tea fields is therefore an advantage to the cooperative and Sorwathé.

We sit comfortably into Mr. Peiris’ office. He explains the story of Sorwathe: originally only dedicated to the production of tea via the CTC method of black tea, the company has created in 2009 an annex of the factory dedicated to the production of Orthodox tea, the first in Rwanda. Since 2009, Sorwathé has also been involved in organic, with 20% of its certified organic production today. Last year, a new plant dedicated to the production of green tea was created.

80% of the production is sold directly for export, in particular to German wholesalers. Mr. Peiris also deals with French tea houses like Mariage Frères, Dammann Frères, Palais des Thés … 10% of the production is sold at auction in Mombasa, Kenya. And the last 10 percentages are sold on the domestic market. Indeed, we will meet many tea boxes “Sorwathé” in local supermarkets. It is also only in Rwanda that Sorwathé tea is sold under its own brand.

We are on Monday, maintenance day, the factory does not turn, so the visit will be tomorrow morning at dawn. We leave the office of M Peiris and we assist to a tasting session. Every day, the tea production of the day is tested and rated according to the quality. We try our best but it is very difficult for us to capture the tiny difference that exists between the several samples. But for the experts of Sorwathé, it’s an easy walk. With a small gathering, an aspiration and after spitting liquor, the note falls. The day we visit Sorwathé, a request comes from a buyer who wants exactly the same tea as a previous purchase. Several tea samples are ready to be tasted and we must find the most similar. Mr. Peiris starts the tea tasting and invites us to do the same. We do not shine by our expertise but admire the work of the tea experts.

After multiple spoons of tea swallowed and spit out we take the way to the Guest House. A terrace overlooks hills covered with tea plants. A constantly suspended dust blurs the view. We remember Darjeeling with its hills and this light daily fog.

After an enormous meal with a Kenyan engineer specializing in boiler safety who travels across Africa, we will go to bed early, tomorrow wake up at 7am!

The night is still here when we get up. The warm is gentle and we go to the factory. Venuste, Assistant Tea Maker, welcomes us. The factory is working 24h/24 and therefore only stops on Monday for maintenance. Organized in 3 * 8, the teams relieve each other. We start with the large withering room. During the high season these rooms welcome more than 100 tons of leaves per day which enable to produce 25 tons of tea. We are in the low season, so this morning only 44 tons of leaves were received. The plant just tick lover but the activity is still here!

The first step is the selection of freshly picked leaves. Samples are removed from each large box which arrives by truck from the fields. 66% of the leaves must be of good quality to be accepted. If not, they will be turned into compost. We find the large carpet of leaves, the dazzling scents of freshly picked grass and the windmills that run at full speed to reduce the moisture content of the leaves.

Then, conveyor belt transport them to their next destination. There the leaves will be separated, with a different destiny. Some leaves will go to the CTC factory where the leaves will be Crushed, Teared and Curled then they will oxidize for 2 hours before being dried in huge ovens. The outcome is a multitude of mini black balls that you can find in classic tea bags. Other leaves will go to the Orthodox factory where they will be rolled, then oxidized for 4 hours before being also dried in large ovens. Controls are made by a tasting team. The tea, whether produced in CTC or Orthodox methods, is then sorted according to the grade obtained (Dust 1, Pekoe Dust, Broken Pekoe …). Last step is the packaging! We even visit the room where men where lining up to put the tea in the bags for the retail domestic market. For exports, tea is packaged in huge bags.

We are going to see the green tea factory but for now it is at a standstill as we are in the low season. It is brand new and the machines are still shining.

We also take a look at the boilers where we meet the boiler expert doing his control. Sorwathé also owns forests whose wood is used to power the boilers.

The visit ends and we are back in M. Periris’ office. He explains that the government of Rwanda wants to boost the sector and has launched in 2016 a national brand to make Rwandan tea more attractive. The brand – Rwanda Tea, A Natural Awakening – values ​​the Rwandan industry and aims to find a place in the worldwide competition. Difficult task in a market dominated by China, India and Kenya!

At the end of our exchange, M. Peiris kindly suggests to drive us to our next destination. Here we are again on the roads! On the way M Peiris explains us that the region is living a transformation, indeed factories and other new buildings have came up since he arrived 11 years ago. Even if we run on a new asphalt road, still a lot of inhabitants traveled on foot or by bike. We arrive at a junction where a minibus for the Rwanda / Uganda border passes regularly. The goodbyes are warm, the car goes away and we find ourselves a little lost in this tiny village 40kms from the Ugandan border. After an hour observing the back and forth of the young people from the village who are fetching water by bike thanks to big yellow cans hanging on the dial, a crowded minibus arrives. We rush, stuff the bags and we take a place as we can between huge bags of seeds stuck like sardines with the other passengers. Ah, the pleasures of bus travel! Now go to Uganda, see you soon!
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