For the release of HIRU, the third variety of Ama pét-nat tea, we had a chat with Alexander Kay and Wouter Verelst from the Satemwa Estate in Malawi. This family-run estate grows and produces speciality teas, amongst them the Malawi Green and Malawi White peony teas that make up the blend in HIRU.
In the first half of this two-part interview, Alexander and Wouter tell us about the family history, the country, and the farm’s commitment to improving the living standards of the community.
Alex, Tell us about the family, what made them move from Scotland to Malawi in 1923?
My mum’s family actually came earlier. They were sort of working with the government, so they came in the late 1890s and then my father´s dad was offered a job in Malawi, growing rubber. He was an agriculturist. His brother had heard that there were guys growing tea around here and he suggested to my father to look into it, which he did. Then his brother, who was working for a bank, helped him financially to buy some land and to start growing the first tea. So that’s how they basically got into tea.
He wasn’t processing his own tea until 1938. Initially, he was just selling the leaf to a nearby factory. To begin with, it was a tobacco farm and he grew tobacco for a couple of years for the cash flow but he was more interested in tea. I think that he was planting it until 1939 but then the tobacco price collapsed.
The intention was never to grow tobacco but because it’s an annual crop, you get a cash flow, whereas tea, in those days… I´m not even sure how long it would have taken to get a cash flow but certainly at least 3 or 4 years just to get something and probably ten years to get the bushes mature.
What was it like growing up on the Satemwa Estate?
Growing up on a farm you get to spend loads of time outdoors, playing in the tea fields, playing soccer, with loads of other kids around.
What’s the Estate´s connection to the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens?
Originally the tea that was grown in Malawi was brought in by the missionaries of the presbyterian church, the church of Scotland. At that time (around the 1880s) they were all Chinese varieties. This is one of the interesting things about Malawi, it’s the oldest commercial producer so we have very old material; different from Kenya for example, which only started producing much later. They have more improved varieties, but the genetic base is much smaller than ours. We have a lot of this old material which is what we are really looking for to get some interesting flavours from.
When my grandfather came, at that time, his first tea planting was all that same Camellia sinensis var. sinensis based tea and through his contacts in Scotland he was able to arrange some Camellia sinensis var. assamica, through the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. He was the first to bring out a couple of bags of that seed and start planting that material.
I understand that tobacco is the biggest export in Malawi, but are people starting to think about other products?
Tobacco is the biggest export by far, but the new government is very pro-hemp. They see hemp as the alternative to tobacco, for fibre, for medicinal use, for oil… The legislation is now in place but there are still quite a few barriers. For example, you can’t ship hemp because we are landlocked and you can’t ship hemp products, such as CBD oil, through Mozambique or Tanzania, so it can only go by air. South Africa has legislation in place, so you could go there and then try to ship it…
That’s the ambition of the government as tobacco winds down. There are also some other crops, oilseed crops such as peanuts, sunflowers, a lot of lentils, cowpeas, pigeon peas, a little soya as well… but yeah, hemp is the one with the higher value addition. It is the one that it´s seen with the most potential to create the most value for the country.
How many people do you employ at the Farm? How does a project such as Satemwa help to improve life for local communities?
We employ around 1,700 people. Per hectare, tea is one of the most intensive crops if it´s hand-plucked. A lot of people have machines these days and at Satemwa we are still hand plucking. It is important in this part of the world, where there is no economic activity; tea is a driver of jobs in this area.
Do you think that in the near future, new crops like hemp or maybe new extracts from plants will improve the jobs or will change the profile of the jobs in the communities?
That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen with speciality teas. People have more skills, deeper skills, become more valuable because they are producing a higher value product and that’s something that we see as part of the future. One of our challenges here is to keep improving living standards. We employ a lot of people, we are in one of the poorest countries in the world and we need to keep contributing towards improving living standards. The old model where we are coming from, large volumes of CDC, is just not doing that anymore. The value has been squished down, the next step is mechanisation, it’s fewer jobs. Speciality tea allows us to keep employing people because you need more people for the quality of the plucking and in the processing side, it’s more skills, deeper skills, more complexity, different types of skills are required; so I see a change in the profile and for the better, better quality jobs.
In fact, we are very close to that reality because here in Spain we have a refugee crisis. Many of the people are coming from the African continent looking for a better future. From your side; what can we do from Europe to help solve this problem? Can you think of a starting point for a solution?
It’s very real and that’s exactly what we are talking about. If we are not improving living standards and helping to make a difference then, there are limited opportunities out there. With speciality teas, with more value addition, looking at the extraction of the different potentials that come out of tea and some other botanicals; basically creating more value here. That’s really what we’ve got to do and that’s the challenge. To create a vibrant rural economy. If we can’t do that, people are getting on their bikes and off they go, they have to look for a better future. I think it’s possible, the opportunities are there and we got to get the right linkages and to co-invest.
This is something that we discussed already with Henrietta. Henrietta [Lovell, Rare Tea Company] is not asking for the CDC bulk teas, she’s asking for the better quality teas and also she wants them in pouches. You can send the bulk or you can send silver foil packets and that way we create jobs in Malawi, on Satemwa. We fill the tea in a silver foil pouch and on top of that may be put an extra label on it, put it in a box and ship it then. It looks like a very tiny difference but with that, you create 10-15 jobs.
It’s the other pillars that need to be in place to do projects like that. Whether that´s HACCP systems, food safety, ISO standards, all that needs to go in there as well. Training, improving the capacity of individuals in the factory… all that helps to create complexity and added value.
How did you meet Henrietta from Rare Tea Company?
That’s quite a good story. We have a small lodge here and there was a lady staying there, who had met Henrietta. At that time we had just started making specialty tea. This was around 2007, so Henrietta was still doing food markets and trying to get people to taste tea. The lady bought some tea from here, at that time we hadn’t even started selling tea, we were still playing with them. She said “you must get in touch with this person” so I looked up on the internet and found an address and we sent some tea.
We recycle everything in this part of the world and there was a Cornflakes packet that became the container for the tea… Obviously there was foil inside, but it was a Cornflakes packet covered in stamps because the value of the currency is quite low here so, the whole one side was covered in stamps. An inside out Cornflakes packet, grey on the outside but when you looked inside you could see that it was Cornflakes.
I think that Henrietta was a bit taken by that whole thing and she got in touch and made the trip to come but we didn’t actually meet until she arrived here.
Traditional tea buyers don’t really deal in specialty tea and they really have no interest in the kind of things that we were doing; so we had to almost start again, building a customer base…
Thanks to Alex and Wouter for joining us! Part 2 of the conversation coming soon. In the meantime, you can find out more about Satemwa here:
Ama pét-nat tea is a new fine-aged low alcohol drink made with water from the Izarraitz Massif in the Basque Country and carefully selected varieties of tea and herbal infusions. Hiru combines two Malawi-grown varieties to intensify its depth of flavour, personality and versatility.
Tea: 70% Malawi Green and 30% Malawi White Peony.
Farmer: Small-scale production, on the family-run Satemwa Tea Estate in Malawi, of traditional Japanese-style steamed green tea and white peony, the seeds of which speak of an ancient journey that brought them first from Fujian, China, to Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens, and subsequently to the remote mountains of East Africa.
Tasting Notes: Intense golden colour. Notes of dates and tropical fruits such as papaya with hints of hay and dried herbs. Fine effervescence. Clean, crisp finish.
Aging: Ama pét-nat tea is aged 6 months on the bottle and will continue to improve with time. May be aged even further, for up to 3 years.
Pairings: Versatile and adaptable. It can accompany salads (especially ripe tomatos), seafood, such as crab, but also bacon.
Drinking moments: Ama pét-nat tea is a new fizzy delicious drink, low in alcohol, for the modern lifestyle.
Production: Micro-batch brewing. Each fermentation produces around 280 bottles.
Glass: Enjoy in white wine glasses.
Alcohol grading: 2,5%.
Bottle size: 750 ml.Buy now