.,Rwandan tea is not extremely rare, but it is still pretty much unknown around the world. Except from the generic black tea, it is quite difficult to get hold of other types, especially organic or those with a specific mission.
We had an opportunity to talk to Sara Stender, the founder of 3 Mountains and belonging Rwandan tea brand TIMA Tea. What really intrigued me is that Sara’s tea story woven of many different strands – from resilience to empathy and kindness. Sara moved to Rwanda in 2009 and she is actively building personal relationship with people in Rwanda and offering tea and hand-woven products on praiseworthy principles.
Tea Chronicles: Sara, thank you for agreeing for an interview. Your story is very interesting. You decided to move to Rwanda after learning about the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. What made you so determined to move to Rwanda and what were your initial ideas?
Sara: It is part of my personal story of healing. When I was 22 years old I was at a sort of emotional bottom and I felt really lost. One night I rented a documentary about the Rwandan Genocide and it broke my heart open. The women in the film had lost almost everything. It made me feel like if they can go through all that and still find a reason to live than so can I!
That night was a turning point for me and I knew I had to go to Rwanda one day. Without even meeting them they helped me start on my path toward healing my own traumas and discovering what my life purpose was. 8 years later I was offered a job in Kigali, Rwanda to manage a business called Heaven Restaurant and that is when I fell in love with the nation and the people there.
Rwanda is very safe today and there are many improvements in the infrastructure. It is a good place to do business. Yet, yet there are still so many needs and ways we can help. I started a nonprofit before the business, to build culturally-appropriate solutions for the generational trauma in Rwanda. It has been very successful in helping people feel better emotionally so they can pursue their dreams and build better futures for their children.
Tea Chronicles: How does the tea fit into this story?
Sara: I lived in Rwanda for almost a year and started experiencing the high quality products growing there. The soil is some of the richest in the world and most things are grown organically and processed by hand. I had traveled around the country and most of the Rwandan tea I was finding was black CTC.
When I came across the farmers cooperative where we are now sourcing our tea, it seemed like a great opportunity. I saw what a difference the purchases were making in the lives of thousands of people. The quality is exceptional and they are producing unique varieties including white, silver, green and black orthodox. I saw how much people were helped by the fair trade purchases and that it was being grown organically and with respect to the natural habitat.
I started to meet the pluckers and processors and spending time in the fields. Just breathing the air there makes me feel healthier! Tea supports our mission of helping people move from a place of financial poverty to prosperity and represents a healthy lifestyle. Consumers are demanding better quality nutrition and are spending money wisely. We believe in conscious consumerism and our line of teas represents people first!
Tea Chronicles: You are running a U.S. based company called 3 Mountains. What exactly do you do?
Sara: 3 Mountains connects producers and artisans in Rwanda with international markets. In this way we can build awareness about the beauty of that country and so we can make a bigger impact economically and socially. We offer entrepreneurship training and small business incubation, and through our nonprofit partner organization – Africa Healing Exchange – we offer resiliency training, skills to support the whole person, like stress management and trauma healing.
Our primary product line is the loose leaf tea which is sold wholesale and retail now, under the name TÎmaTea. We are also producing a ready-to-drink tea beverage in an effort to offer an energizing, healthy alternative and to help make a bigger impact for our producer partners in Rwanda. It is important that people know this is not a charity product, but rather of a premium quality and reasonable prices, and offering social and financial empowerment opportunities for all involved. We are building personal relationships and that is the heart of our mission.
Tea Chronicles: Could you tell us a bit more about the tea in Rwanda? Is there a tea drinking culture?
Sara: Our cultivar is Rukeri and it grows at high elevation – 6,500 meters – in the northern part of Rwanda. As far as we know, the first Camellia sinensis tea was planted in the 1950’s by a refugee named Joe Wertheim from Germany. He could not stay in his home country because of his Jewish faith. He was passionate about helping others.
Today the tea fields exceed 1,000 hectares and pesticides have never been used. The processing facilities employ 2,500 Rwandans and provide wages for 4,500 small farmer members, supporting an estimated 100,000 community members. The facility where the tea is processed is Fair Trade certified, organic certified, rainforest Alliance Certified, ISO 9001-2008 and 22000-2005, ethical Tea Partnership participant, and Rwanda Bureau of Standards Certified.
Most of the tea produced in Rwanda is exported but there is a growing population that consumes it on a daily basis, especially with the rising middle class and growing insight into the health benefits of tea. The traditional tea beverage there is a blend of half black CTC and half milk, with lots of sugar, called African Tea. Many people also mix in spices like ginger and it is called Spiced African Tea. Rwandan black tea is also popular as a blend for sweet chai tea.
Tea Chronicles: Your company has its own tea brand called TIMA Tea. You are selling Rwandan tea with a mission. What are the values you are focusing on and what does TIMA mean?
Sara: TÎma Tea (pronounced ‘tee-ma’, meaning ‘heart’ in some East African languages), was founded on the principles of conscious commerce. This means we prioritize personal relationships and mutual respect with our trading partners, ensuring earth-safe and environmentally-friendly practices, and being aligned with the greatest good, all while providing premium and consistent quality. We connect people across the globe through healthy and delicious Rwandan tea!
Tea Chronicles: What was the most intriguing moment on your tea path in Rwanda?
Sara: When I met one of the tea pluckers where we work in Rwanda and she invited us to her home. Her name is Beatrice and she is a single mom of 5. She has been plucking tea for almost 20 years and is one of the fastest tea pluckers in her community. She has had such a hard life but is so warm and loving and she made a big feast for us in her humble home.
Now Beatrice is teaching our tour participants how to pluck tea. When I was in the field with her this past June, I felt so at peace. It was like a meditation, moving next to her and breathing in the clean air, and listening only to the sound of birds and Beatrice’s laughter as we tried to copy her movements.
Tea Chronicles: I dare to say, you focus more on white Rwandan tea than black. Is white tea common in Rwanda? What are your rules for choosing tea?
Sara: We have only found one place in Africa that is producing white tea so it is quite rare. This includes our white tip and silver needles. The white tip tea is plucked only in the morning when the buds are open. This is more labor intensive, so we pay more for the pluckers to provide this variety. It is lighter and has less caffeine and has a higher antioxidant count than the black tea. It also blends beautifully with some herbs and really supports a healthy lifestyle.
When we are considering a new tea we look at the flavor profile, the supply and capacity for growing to ensure we can meet consistent demand. We look at the environmental and social impact and any risk associated with climate change or weather patterns that might impact marketability. We also look at the health benefits and the purity standards.
Of course, we want to make sure the people who are plucking and processing are paid fairly and in some cases are part of the product development team. Before adding a new tea to our portfolio, we have trusted advisors cup the leaves and offer honest feedback too, so we may run it as a limited release until all of those criteria are met.
Tea Chronicles: And the last question, the one I like to ask everyone: What is your favorite tea?
Sara: My favorite tea is our silver needle and I make it using a cold steep method. This I sip on most of the summer and I keep a supply in my fridge! It inspired the ready-to-drink I have developed this year, called Silverback on Tap ™.
You can learn more about Rwandan tea and buy it here.