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Out of Africa

2nd June 2010

The African continent grows great tea, and the chances are that you're drinking it daily!

Compared to the far Eastern countries of China and Japan, African tea has only been cultivated very recently – starting in the late 1800s, compared to 2737BC for China tea. However the African tea producers have quickly caught on to what makes the best brews and current levels of African exports stand at approximately 424,000 tonnes of tea a year – that’s 32% of worldwide tea exports!

Malawi was the pioneer tea-growing African country and production of tea began there in 1878, soon spreading across the rest of the continent. The first tea plants came from Natal in South Africa and although this variety didn’t flourish, today Malawi ’s rich soils and high elevation (it lies 3000 – 9000 feet above sea level) combine to create export levels of 43,000 tonnes per year. There aren’t many single estate tea s from the country but Malawian tea forms an essential component of many tea blends. Most African tea is produced via the CTC (or cut, tea r, curl method) which machine-processes the leaves to cut them into uniform pieces, perfect for use in tea bags. Europe is the biggest consumer of Malawian tea so it’s almost certain that the next cup of tea bag tea you brew will contain some Malawian tea!

Map of AfricaAlthough many countries on the African continent grow tea, Kenya is probably the most well-known. Kenya was the largest exporter of black tea in the world in 1998 and a huge amount is drunk in Britain today. Kenyan teas are characteristically strong and flavourful with bright, coppery liquor. The tea is often included in Breakfast blends due to its brisk, refreshing qualities.

The origins of Kenyan tea can be traced back to a set of seeds from India , which were planted on a small farm in 1903. The tea grew brilliantly and the country now farms 69,000 hectares of tea plantations. It has become a major contributor to Kenya ’s economy. As it lies on the equator, Kenya ’s hot climate provides ideal tea -growing conditions as there are few seasonal variations (meaning quality helpfully remains the same year-round.) Kenya is divided in two, tea -wise, and connoisseurs believe leaves grown East of the Rift Valley in the Regati region are of superior quality, although the Kericho highlands (in the South-West) are one of the oldest tea -producing areas and noted as one of the top regions for tea -growing in the country. Here, the high altitude and moisture levels from nearby Lake Victoria produce optimum conditions for growing tea.

Despite it’s political problems, Zimbabwe is still a major tea producer and, having established a sophisticated irrigation programme to water African tea plantation - on the UK Tea Council websitethe plants, the country exports over 15,000 tonnes of tea a year and tea enjoys ‘protected’ status to control its quality and the industry’s growth. Zimbabwean tea production began in 1924 (using seeds from Indian Assam plants) and tea production became a major industry in the 1960s. Although the Winter weather is too cold for year-round growth, the tea bushes are pruned and lie dormant until their first flush in the following Spring.

Tanzania is another great African tea producing nation, which began developing tea crops in earnest after World War II. After the country gained independence in 1961 many smallholders were encouraged to grow tea independently, although these farms went into decline as the Tanzanian economy stalled in the late Nineties. Many tea gardens were bought by foreign companies and, along with the foreign capital this provided, the country’s tea industry was revitalized. Today smallholder tea plantations are also seeing a revival!

It's possibly the most surprising tea producer but Ethiopia is growing into a tea-growing force to be reckoned with. Steaming cup of black tea - on the UK Tea Council websiteLast year $300 million dollars were invested by a Dubai-based company to plant 5000 hectares of tea - with the aim of producing 421,348kg of black tea a year. The highland forest regions are ideal for tea plantations as the fertile land provides perfect growing conditions. It looks like the famously coffee-loving country is turning to tea!

Ugandan tea has suffered from drops in production in past decades due to economic crises and tribal conflicts but it's recent rehabilitation means crops are back at high levels. 90% of tea crops are currently exported and production is still rising with the northern areas of Lake Victoria, West Nile and South and Western Highlands being the most fertile areas.

Next time you’re buying tea, look to Africa for your cuppa. But don’t be seduced by Red tea! Made from leaves from the native African Aspalathus plant, Rooibos might be described as Redbush 'tea' but it has nothing to do with proper tea made from the Camellia Sinensis plant. You have been warned!

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