“The problem with really good tea is demand, not supply” – A conversation with Henrietta Lovell, Rare Tea Lady (Part Two)

Henrietta Lovell, Founder of Rare Tea Company is leading a tea revolution. In the second part of this interview, Henrietta explains how she’s championing the social, financial and ecological sustainability of tea growing communities by giving back tea the value it deserves, and it once had.


What’s the first thing that comes to mind if I say “Cornflakes packet”?

Haha, yes! I received a parcel from Africa and I was really thinking that it was going to be just another rubbish sample from somebody. I didn’t have any expectations, which is kind of wonderful, because when your expectation is really low and something surprises you, the impact is huge. It wasn’t just the cornflakes box but the parcel was completely wrapped in stamps and the address was wrong. It was amazing that it found me, it was kind of a miracle. 

I felt quite embarrassed when I tried it because I’ve had all these preconceptions about what African tea would be, from this farm that I didn’t know (Satemwa), but really about African tea, I thought it was only for bulk… I was completely wrong!

Can you tell us a little bit about tea growing countries? How did the tea trade get commodified?  

I first fell in love with tea in China. It was a very different business. In China there is a value associated with tea, so people spend more of their income on tea. There is a big value gain and there is wealth in tea growing. In the rest of the world, in places like Africa, India, Sri Lanka, there was traditionally no tea-growing until the 19th century. There was no local market for tea, the tea was for export and that’s still predominantly the case. 

Tea was funded in a colonial way by foreign powers coming in and growing tea for an export market; this is different from China. However, the value of tea was still very high. Before the second world war, in Britain people were spending more of their income on tea than on alcohol. We understood tea the way we understand wine. I have records that show that it was more expensive than champagne, brandy and saffron. It was a wonderful exotic thing that you could buy when you could afford it. You’d go to the grocer and you’d buy it based on quality and rarity, just like you’d go to a wine shop to buy wine. It was an aspirational thing. Then during World War II, rationing came in and we were unable to buy any kind of tea apart from the government-issued tea; this was the beginning of commodity markets. The government was giving contracts to farms to produce tea and that has left a huge legacy because we got used to drinking cheap industrial tea. The tea was made as cheap as possible for the government contract, there was no quality determinant. That’s where we really are today and the price is constantly dropping.

How important was it for you to challenge the status quo when you first started?

The problem with good, high-value tea is demand not supply and I think that a lot of pressure and responsibility is put onto tea farmers and no responsibility is put on consumers. There are about 7 to 9 big companies that control about 90% of the tea coming to Europe and North America. They are the broker houses and the big PLCs. This is the tea status quo that I wanted to change. These big players control 90% of the tea coming in and out; then through distributors and brokers the tea goes to the companies and these tea companies take no responsibility for the relationship with the farm because they just bought it from the broker. There have been a lot of reports from the BBC and independent bodies about the farms behind the big brands. The big brands had no idea because they were buying it from the broker, then another broker and then it would come to them. Farms with unacceptable conditions, with little to no access to health care or clean water, or to education… 

It’s not just the tea companies that are separated from the producers, but also us as tea drinkers. No one takes responsibility for the people who actually make the tea we drink.

Tea is not sold to the consumer or to a distributor, it is sold at auction to a broking house, who will then sell it again and again. If you’ve got seven to ten major players, it’s a small enough group to decide how the price would be for a certain area.

I think that it is an important thing to mention that our western concepts of aid and helping impoverished communities are not always very thought through. 20, 30, 40 years ago lots of tea was given to small farmers, in Africa, in Kenya, in East Africa…with the concept of “give the man a fishing rod” but they didn’t think of the impact of that. There is huge overproduction of tea in Kenya, which again drops the price. Which is very good for the big guys! I mean the fact that it might drop below the cost of production…Maybe some of those small guys would go bust and the big industrial farms who can make economies of scale would take over or would take the small farms, independent farms, family-run farms, where you might have more personal relationships and responsibility to the community. 

Smaller holder farms that just grow leaf but can’t make it into finished tea are forced to sell their leaf for whatever price they can get to the big industrial factories. It’s getting worse and worse and worse…The standard of living has been dropping in the twenty years that I’ve been working in tea.

What can you tell us about pesticides or chemical-free tea agriculture?

There are two ways to make tea like there are two ways to make wine. You can use an industrial machine and make vast amounts of cheap industrial wine or you can pick grapes and instead of using loads of pesticides to control the bugs, you can use natural ways and build great biodiversity and healthy soil.

That takes a lot of work, a lot of thought. Just the tree planting that goes on in Satemwa is fascinating to see because it’s not just about shade. As we look at the climate crisis, it’s also about soil structure. Putting trees and keeping the soil structure is super important, and also for biodiversity, different kinds of trees… but it’s much more expensive to do this kind of farming than it is to do industrial farming. Also, it’s been vilified in Africa if you are not using Western chemicals. There’s been loads of education in Africa that you are a fool if you don’t use Western chemicals because that’s obviously the way to decrease costs.

I went to a UN meeting and all the tea producing nations were there, all the ambassadors, all the big tea guys and their focus was how to reduce costs, how can we produce tea cheaper. How is making tea cheaper to produce going to help? Can’t we make tea a higher value? How can we make the environment sustainable for future generations? And this is where we come in, where you come in, you are focussing on better.

I believe that we can create new terroir. What we have is a part of the world where all the produce is going into commodity tea bags and they talk about single-origin, what the hell is that mean? Imagine a single-origin wine! French, Spanish… Do you buy French wine or Spanish wine? How dare they patronize tea by saying oh look! We have a Malawi tea, what about a Satemwa tea? This respect for the farm and the connection hopefully builds terroir and understanding.

Big corporations and mainstream food distribution need all kinds of labels such as organic agriculture or fairtrade to market their products and even to have a good image. How does Rare Tea Company “certify” products to the final consumer? And why can’t many of your small scale suppliers apply for official certifications?

We used to put fair trade on our packaging. We worked with Fairtrade and I thought that was a wonderful thing. Satemwa, where some of your tea is coming from, is the first Fairtrade farm in Malawi. 

I work with Waitrose, a lovely supermarket in the UK and they advised me to put the Fairtrade label on the side of the packaging, or the back where it wouldn’t be noticed, because it isn’t associated with premium products and would devalue the tea. I went and talked to Fairtrade but I didn’t manage to make any progress, I’m too small, they were not interested in talking to me. 

We started to look at what percentage of the money that we were paying was going to Satemwa. 50 extra a kilo for Fairtrade tea was useful but I’m buying something that is crafted in a small batch for really great flavor, so we’d be paying 7, 12 or 20 times the commodity price. In comparison, that extra 50 cents a kilo was having absolutely no impact.

Also, the certification body behind Fairtrade is an independent for-profit business. It’s a huge financial burden on the farmer and masses of complicated compliance documentation.

Organic certification is the same thing, the same problem and a lot of our farmers have dropped organic certification when money has been tight. They would continue to farm organically but they’ve stopped the European and American certification because it’s incredibly expensive, it’s a lot of paperwork, you need a lot of skills and time….

Another factor that persuaded me to give up on Fairtrade is the minimum price. For many years the Fairtrade minimum price was below the cost of production. Production price fluctuates and Fairtrade doesn’t consider that. Their minimum price is not protecting them. Also, the market is dwindling, fewer people are buying Fairtrade tea, so Alex (Satemwa) didn’t sell any Fairtrade tea, but we were still paying for the certification. 

Lastly. the lion’s share of the funds we were raising for Fairtrade, through a percentage of the sale price, was going to Fairtrade, not Alex, the farmer. So we thought, why is Alex paying all that money when I could be doing something better and returning all that money? So we began Rare Charity, as a completely separate body,  not run by Rare Tea, committed to sending a percentage of the revenue, not of the profit.

Tell us about more Rare Charity, what are its goals?

I knew that I wanted to do something directly. Setting up a charity…I probably wouldn’t do it again, it was incredibly complicated, with loads of lawyers and regulations, as there should be; but that allows us to know exactly where our money goes. Our ambition for the Rare Charity is for 80% of our revenue to go to the charity and only 20% on administration. Between 50% and 80% is considered the norm for charities.

Another ambition is not to impose anything but to support long term sustainable change; so we went to the communities in the farms that we work with and I said “if we were going to take all the Fairtrade money and give it directly to you, what would you want to do with it?” and they said almost unanimously that they would like their children to have a better future and a better life. They believed that access to education was the key to that. There are a lot of NGO´s on the ground looking after basic healthcare needs. The mosquito nets and the AIDS medicine has made a huge difference to life expectancy but it hasn’t made a difference to people’s standards of living. Marginalized tea communities are very far from the city so access to education is a problem. So how do we give people access to education? You have free primary education and quite a lot of grants for secondary education but nothing to go to university so that middle-class elite remains that middle-class elite.

We thought that tertiary education is something that no one is looking at. We broaden that to secondary education for girls now, because we made it absolutely essential to the charity that they would be exactly the same amount of boys and girls gaining our scholarships and we were finding that it was difficult for girls to make it through secondary schools. That’s what we want our funding, for now, to pay for girls´ secondary school education. We have 20 girls now in boarding school. 

If you can get through junior school, secondary schooling and get a place in university from a tea farm, you are a genius, you are so tenacious, you are so brilliant, you had almost no advantages in life at all and yet you made it through. We should be giving these people access, they are going to be brain surgeons, they are going to be running the country, they are going to be the best lawyers, civil engineers…. whatever they feel they want to pursue, there is no restriction in that.

Could you share with us a success story?

We have one man called Osman. He was an orphan and came from an extremely poor background. He was so brilliant and determined that he went to university and took a business management course and he now works at Satemwa. I talked to him and he said “everybody talked to me as if I was worthless but now they call me sir and I live in a manager’s house”. He goes back to the schools and the people around and he goes “look, I was that kid that barely made it and now look at me, you can do it too”.

Then we’ve got midwives graduating and we have a wonderful girl that is the first-ever woman to be graduating as a biomedical engineer.

And finally, how is specialty tea craftsmanship connected to the development of new skills and the creation of higher value jobs?

Satemwa is this amazing farm looking at long term sustainability for the land, for the people. It’s more than sustainable, it’s regenerative. However, they have to produce mostly cheap tea for the commodity market because there is not enough demand for the high-quality tea they make. 

There are skills, jobs and labour in making quality tea, a lot more, so many more… In the plucking, in the careful making of it, in all the processes, in the crafting. This returns a much higher price, so it’s worth the extra cost and it’s a long term worth because you are building this quality market and this customer base who understands terroir, what you are doing and your place in the world. 

Then there is the commodity that goes into a teabag that no one would ever know what farm or even country it comes from. from your farm. It doesn’t matter how good it is and requires fewer skilled jobs. They struggle to survive because all the tea coming from this beautiful biodiverse farm goes into a cheap teabag. After all, that’s where the market is. Alex (Satemwa) is building the future but we need to catch up much quicker.


Thanks to Henrietta for chatting with us!

You can find out more about Henrietta, Rare Tea Company and all the wonderful varietals they have here, as well as the important work that Rare Charity does with their suppliers:

IG: @raretealady@rareteacompany, @rarecharity

Website: rareteacompany.comrarecharity.com


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