This month I had a chance to talk to Wouter Verelst from Satemwa Tea Estates. I was very surprised by both the versatility of the offer, kindness and approachable friendly attitude and the extreme amount of initiatives Satemwa is making to create a better life for farm workers in Malawi. I was very interested to learn more about Satemwa because they are producing not only black tea (even though 95% of tea produced on Satemwa Tea Estates is black CTC tea), but green, white, oolong and dark tea as well.
SATEMWA Tea Estates is a small family owned tea estate in the Shire Highlands in Malawi, currently ran by third generation tea farmers of the Kay family. It was established in 1923 by Maclean Kay. Satemwa produces a range of pesticide free high quality teas and is certified by Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ. On top of that Satemwa is member of the Ethical Tea Partnership and has undersigned the UN Global Compact.
Tea Chronicles: Wouter, thank you very much for providing wonderful teas and giving me the chance to talk to you. Could you tell us a bit more about Satemwa Tea Estates? Your tea selection is quite interesting, but how did Satemwa start?
Wouter: Satemwa Tea Estates was founded by Maclean Kay in 1923. Maclean came from Scotland and bought his first piece of land from a tobacco farmer to grow TEA.
His son Robert who got his nickname Chip when an American lady laid her eyes on the baby boy and said with a strong accent “Oh…he really looks like a chip of the block”. Chip took over from his dad and has not slowed down since. Now in his 80s he visits the factory several times a day (and night) and makes sure he learns something new about anything by 12:00 each day.
You will find his wife Dawn that was also born in Malawi in the sales office or if she is not there in the garden with a lot of dogs in tow.
Alexander “Alex” is their oldest son and he started varsity studying economics, but it didn’t take very long before he realized, that was not what he wanted to do so quickly changed to Horticulture instead. Now he is in charge of most things that involve running Satemwa, including checking the accounts.
Tea Chronicles: Most tea drinkers think that fermented teas are produced only in China. There are certainly more countries in Asia that produce dark teas (like Vietnam and Japan), but I would have never guessed Malawi is one of them as well. Where did the idea of dark teas come from?
Wouter: Alexander loves to experiment and he has an amazing passion for tea. He travelled quite a bit to different tea areas around the globe and he made a lot of interesting tea friends. He got inspired to try out new things with tea. The aim is not to copy but to play around with the principles and ideas you can find in other places around the world. Learning from each other is the route towards innovation and progress. Crafting, determination, a lot of experiments by trial and error and massive amounts of tasting are the key to take your ideas further.
The #518 Satemwa Dark tea is the result of a strong collaboration with a Japanese tea partner. Our Japanese friends shared their food technology knowledge and we use a specific enzyme to control quality and food safety. This post fermented tea is a unique result of old school craftmanship, traditional tea making methods in combination with state of the art food technology. The result is a soft & mild and typically earthy & woody character. Licorice with harmonic & pleasantly spicy aftertaste
Tea Chronicles: I had the opportunity to read your „Hello World“ book about tea and coffee production with amazing photographs and very friendly informative approach. What I especially liked is how you actually presented farmers as well. How important is the human factor in running a tea estate and what does it mean in a country like Malawi?
Wouter: Satemwa has a strong vision towards their Products, the People and the Planet. For us this People factor is of major importance. We do everything we can to keep our employees satisfied, happy and motivated. In order to make quality products you need motivated employees. A tea made with passion just tastes better.
As a Malawian company, employing about 1500 employees (in the low season), we realize we have a certain responsibility. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and the government has not always the means to take care of their citizens. Therefore the private sector often takes over some roles of the public sector. Satemwa is fulfilling this role through the Satemwa Primary school for about 950 children. Further we have 6 Satemwa nurseries on the estate so we can provide free children day care to the little ones. We give bursaries to students and we often have internships come to Satemwa to learn more about their study field. Further there is a Satemwa clinic with an ambulance service.
We think evidence shows we do not do a bad job. A lot of our employees are 2nd generation Satemwa employees. Their fathers or mothers were working on Satemwa and their children our now working for Satemwa as well. For example, Custom, our tea master, started working for Satemwa 15 years ago. His father was also working for Satemwa.
Tea Chronicles: So far we know that many African countries are producing tea, mostly black. However, facts about tea production in Africa are still quite unfamiliar or at least African countries never got enough of attention, unlike Asian countries. Tea production in Africa started not much earlier from the establishment of Satemwa Tea Estates. Where is the most of African tea going to? How important is tea production for Africa, especially Malawi?
Wouter: The first commercial tea in Africa was planted in Malawi end of 1800. This happened only a few years after the first tea was planted in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Both regions started more or less at the same time but still African teas are a bit unknown.
Currently Kenya is taking the lead in black CTC tea production in Africa. Kenya is the biggest black CTC exporter in the world.
Malawi is still running a bit behind in terms of volume but for Malawi tea export is the second biggest income generator after Tabaco. The Malawian black tea mainly goes into blends of big International Tea Brands in Europe, Russia and the UK.
On Satemwa Tea Estates we strongly believe in diversification. Satemwa is the only estate in Malawi producing orthodox teas. Just recently we also invested in the first commercial green CTC line in Malawi. We think we have to be flexible and pro active and we do not think that the production of black CTC tea only is sustainable.
Tea Chronicles: What is the attitude of Malawi people towards tea? Is there a tea drinking habit where even the food is scarce?
Wouter: In Malawi, people like to drink a lot of tea. They like their tea with a lot of sugar and milk. There is not really a ritual, but tea is an important aspect of the social life in Malawi. Problem is a bit that income levels do not always allow people to buy the extra sugar or the milk to add with the tea.
Satemwa is also selling tea in retail packages in the local and regional supermarket. Although we mainly export our teas we think it is important to show our compatriots what we have to offer locally. We have quite a long track record and we have shown the Malawian population that our local Satemwa brand can compete well with foreign imported teas. More and more Malawians drink Malawi tea!
Tea Chronicles: Satemwa is running a lot of projects to enhance the quality of farm worker’s life. You also care about the environment. Bamboo biomass project, estate clinic project, estate school project… Could you tell us a bit more about your initiatives?
Wouter: As mentioned before we make a lot of initiatives towards our Products, the People and the Planet. In terms of People we have mentioned a few projects above. I guess it is important to mention that we do not only target the Satemwa Tea Estates employees but also the people and communities around Satemwa.
We are very proud about the collaboration between the Msuwadzi Small Holder Tea Growers Association and Satemwa Tea Estates. This group of about 200 small holder farmers all live around Satemwa. They have about 0.5ha of land with tea and they also grow some maize, tomatoes and onions for their own needs and a bit for the local markets around the villages. Firstly, we helped the small holders to obtain Fair Trade, UTZ and Rain Forrest Alliance certification. Because they got this certification they could now deliver their green leaves to Satemwa for processing.
Secondly, we helped the small holders to diversify their income by growing herbs (mint, lemon verbena, lemon grass) and flowers (hibiscus). Satemwa helps the small holders to sell these dried herbs and flowers directly to their customers or we blend it with our teas. Thirdly, Satemwa helped the small holders to set up their own retail ready tea brand called YAMBA Tea! Yamba in the local Chichewa language means: TO START! The small holders own the brand and for each packet sold Satemwa pays a 4% royalty. The small holders have their own CTC brand for the local market but also an OP1 orthodox tea brand for the International market.
Tea Chronicles: African teas have quite a different personality from other Asian teas. Even though most of them are black, green teas are also becoming more and more popular. Do you think there is a space for Malawi teas, especially specialty teas in the hearths of tea drinkers across the world?
Wouter: We think there is definitely space for African teas in the specialty tea section. The unique terroir, lovely southern hemisphere climate (with a first flush early November) and the unique single estate craftmanship create some unique tastes. On top of that Malawi is known to have little or none pest. Use of pesticides is almost nonexistent. All our teas pass the EU MRL regulations! Several prices and awards for our teas have proven that we are successful in making something valuable, rare and unique.
People are surprised with our #108 Satemwa Antlers – a white tea processed stem tea; #315 Father Zambezi’s Mission – gold medal during the North American Tea Conference in 2016; #417 Bvubmwe Hand Made Treasure – very smooth peachy black tea; #421 Thyolo Moto – smoked Guava OP1 – smoked black tea won some awards in France recently; #518 Satemwa Dark – Leafy – Post fermented was a grand cru tea at Palais des Thes in France!
Tea Chronicles: Is it possible to visit Satemwa Tea Estates?
Wouter: Yes, we love to have visitors around. We have regular direct trade partners visiting. We think this is important to show that we are transparent and that we are open towards improvements. Also, we want to show how real life on the estate looks like.
We have 5 star accommodation in Huntingdon House and we have a bungalow available for slightly bigger groups.
A few times per year we also organize Malawi Tea Tours whereby tea sommeliers come and discover Satemwa Tea Estates and the rest of the Malawi tea sector. We visit the Tea Research Foundation, we visit the tea auction in Limbe, we pluck and make our own tea and we learn how tea is brought up from the nursery to the bush. A very interesting and adventurous 8 days full of tea!
Tea Chronicles: My final question – do you drink tea?
Wouter: I love to drink tea! I adore a cup of dry mouth black CTC straight from the drier and I am a huge fan of the Satemwa white Antlers. Further I love to experiment with white and oolong cold brews and when I really go wild I add nitrogen to the brews or I make myself a MoTeaTo cocktail (with # 210 Zomba Green TSFOP – steamed green tea)!
Iva, Tea Chronicles: Thank you very much for your time and willingness to share a part of Satemwa Tea Estates story with us and our readers. I am looking forward to trying the rest of your teas. Also, I hope to see more wonderful initiatives and teas from you in the future.
You can visit Satemwa Tea Estates web site here.