Photo credit: SATEMWA, Malawi

Photo credit: SATEMWA, Malawi

Yswara teas cherish all that is African from the rolling, emerald green hills of Rwanda through the steep slopes of Malawi’s Thyolo mountains and on into the glorious antiquity of South Africa’s Cederberg. In each sip we venerate a special flavour and brightness that is uniquely our own.

History of Camellia sinensis (tea) in Africa

Missions of trade, diplomacy and exploration which crossed the Indian Ocean between Africa and China first made Africans aware of tea made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. In their written accounts of journeys in China, the 14th century Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta and his contemporary the Somali explorer Sa’id of Mogadishu both discuss Chinese tea customs. Whether they returned home with samples of Chinese tea is unknown but there are records of prestige goods, including tea, being exchanged during the meetings with African leaders which took place as part of the Ming Dynasty voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He whose fleet rounded the coast of Somalia, and followed the shore line down to the Mozambique Channel in the period 1405 - 1433.

Sino-African tea exchanges came to an abrupt end in 1433 when China closed its borders to the outside world. The international trade in Chinese Camellia sinensis tea was only re-established in the early 17th century. First Portuguese and later Dutch tea traders travelled around Africa’s east coast en route to Europe with their precious cargo. Shoreline stop offs resulted in trade hubs from which tea culture spread inland mingling with local herbs, spices and hospitality traditions. Such stop offs and the subsequent arrival of Indian indentured workers explain East Africa’s many variants of masala chai black tea.

Historians differ as to the exact manner in which mint tea’s aromatic breeze of refreshment wafted into the North African Maghreb and on through Mauritania into Senegal but the gracious hospitality of the Attaya and Atai tea ceremonies, accompanied by a plethora of pouring customs and proverbs, bear witness to an exquisite process of acculturation.

In the age of empire, European powers sought to source tea from controllable colonial countries so as to reduce dependence on China. Tea plantations were established in several British colonies in Africa where rainfall, altitude and soils favoured its cultivation. In 1880 an estate was established in the Mulanje district of Malawi. Kenya, endowed with an ideal equatorial climate, was brought into the tea family in 1903. The agricultural bounty of Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia was subsequently developed as the international demand for tea grew rapidly through the 20th century. Belgian and French colonial authorities followed similar policies in Burundi, Rwanda and Cameroon.

Post-colonial turmoil initially hindered tea production but in recent years African tea has begun to blossom. Growers have experimented with varieties. Local and international tea companies have invested in factories. Increasingly government agricultural extension services are energising Africa’s modern tea exporting industry. So successful has this been that Africa’s share of the world wide tea exports worth US$6.1 billion during 2015 was 11.7%. Kenya is the world’s fourth largest tea exporting country with more than half a million small-scale tea growers producing 60% of the national crop. Fair trade principles increasingly allow for Africans to reap the rewards of their bounteous terroir.