Nick Redmayne travels to Satemwa Tea Estate in the Shire Highlands to learn about the production of tea and coffee in Malawi and to taste the results
It’s just after 6am. The air is still and cool. In the lingering morning mist, I follow a hard-trodden earth path through apparently impenetrable vegetation, almost 2m high. Soon an insistent munching sound suggests the presence of large and voracious herbivores. The path rises and the beasts are at last revealed. A team of pickers, their shears hungrily devouring fresh growth, wades through a sea of brilliant green tea plantation.
At 1000m, among the rolling hills of southern Malawi’s Shire Highlands, Satemwa is the country’s last remaining independent tea estate. Owned by the Cathcart Kay family, tea was planted here by pioneering Scot, Maclean Kay, in 1924. Related by marriage to David Livingstone, the family’s roots run deep in the country’s red soil. Malawian tea, including that from Satemwa, has long been a key component of many UK big brands, bringing a characteristic deep ochre colour favoured by blenders. Recently, even the Queen was spotted drinking Satemwa’s Earl Grey, though diluted by one part gin and two parts vermouth in a martini…
Walking a little further, the mist clears. Teams of pickers steadily force their way through the tea bushes. There’s little conversation. I see tea being plucked by hand. Two young women briefly pause to chat, their collecting sacks almost as big as they are. They’re plucking the choicest shoots for white tea. “Women are better for speciality tea than the men,” they opine in unison.
In an economy 80 per cent dependent on agriculture, tea is Malawi’s largest formal employer. “After tobacco, it shares second place with sugar as a foreign exchange earner,” says Malawi’s UK Trade Attaché, Mufwa Munthali. “It’s important, too, in poverty reduction. Smallholder tea farmers inject money into the economy at a grass-roots level. And on larger estates, it’s not just tea picking, many ancillary industries are supported, too.’ Each year, Malawi exports nearly 50,000 tonnes of tea, most of it destined for the UK and South Africa. On the African continent, only Kenya produces more.
Back on the plantation, beneath a stand of blue gum trees, piles of glossy, freshly cut tea leaves are sorted on white-cloth ground sheets. Pickers, or pluckers, are paid according to the amount they harvest. A serious-looking woman oversees the weighing of collecting sacks. A kettle steams over a campfire. There’s no need to ask what’s being brewed.
Elsewhere, up to his shoulders in tea bushes, Fraser Breadson smiles broadly. “This is my place,” he says, beads of sweat glistening below black hair flecked with grey. “I’ve been at Satemwa for 20 years.” Looking around, he embraces splendid isolation away from other tea pickers, declaring, in between decisive clips of his shears, “No one else can work here.” He throws cut leaves into a large hessian sack hung on his back. “Ah yes. It’s my estate,” he beams.
Coffee is also grown at Satemwa, an enterprise that in fact pre-dates tea. Tall, dark-green coffee trees heavy with ripening berries grow close to a small-scale processing plant. I examine the machinery. It’s Scottish, early-20th century and obviously built to last. On the open hillside in front of the buildings, workers spread pale, single-variety beans on wire and parchment frames to dry in the sun, while others are busy erecting more frames. Satemwa is bucking the trend by investing in more coffee. Across Malawi, the crop is in decline. High production costs and low returns have seen coffee volumes shrink by 85 per cent since the late 1990s. On many estates, coffee is being replaced by more profitable macadamia nuts.
In contrast, the estate’s tea-processing plant is cavernous. A repository of angry, humming and thrashing, noisy machinery, held in check by security fences. In the relative quiet of an upstairs office, white-coated factory manager Alfred Mwase joins me. We survey two long tables where small heaps of exotic-sounding tea varieties are laid out. Zomba Pearls, Satemwa Antlers, Bvumbwe BSP, Satemwa Oolong and Earl Grey are juxtaposed with white china cups of pale lemon to deep-orange brewed tea. There’s a large steel spittoon. “Here we make tea not to drink. We make it to highlight the differences.” Alfred demonstrates the tasting technique. “First clean the mouth with water, then taste the tea.” Noisily, he bares his teeth and sucks air through a spoonful of tea, hesitates and then effects a succinct metallic ding in the spittoon. “Now that,” he announces, “is good tea.”
Trying to replicate Alfred’s actions, I encounter a surprising range of flavours from brisk, astringent black teas to flowery, delicate oolongs. Alfred tries to coax subtle differentiation from my inexpert palate. I can’t match his nuanced taste buds but in the end I choose a favourite — the Satemwa Antlers.
Later, I sit on the shady verandah of the family’s former home and share a less rigorous cuppa with Annette Cathcart Kay. Huntingdon House now serves as the estate’s chic colonial guesthouse. Polite chatter and the tinkling of teacups drift across from a nearby table. A croquet lawn unfurls around trees planted almost a hundred years ago by Maclean Kay. The setting could be that of a period drama. The birdsong is African. “After the First World War, Maclean tried planting rubber in Malaya,” says Annette. “But growing tea in Malawi is where he ended up. Chip, his son, was born here. His first language was Chichewa. He’s in his 80s now but still oversees the business. We have 9sq km of tea, 45 of coffee. When we’re in full swing, we employ almost 2000 people. My husband, Alex, is Chip’s son.”
However, it’s no secret that a storm is brewing in Malawi’s teacup. Traditional export markets have been eroded. Overall earnings are down and margins on the country’s staple export of black tea are almost non-existent. “Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have planted too much tea, so there’s pressure on price,” says Alex Cathcart Kay, Satemwa’s finance director. “Much of this expansion has been with help from the donor sector, supporting smallholders. It’s well meaning but affects established businesses like us with lots of old infrastructure. We struggle to remain competitive.”
I ask Alex how Satemwa will answer these challenges. “We’re diversifying,” he responds. “Within tea, we’re increasing our range of products, including speciality teas, and attempting to create our own brand — to decommoditise our product. It’s the same with our coffee. We’ve established direct trade relationships for speciality green beans, we sell our own roast and ground coffee in regional markets, including major supermarket chains.”
None of this investment is undertaken lightly. Malawi has some of the highest borrowing rates in the world, up to 40 per cent per annum, and tea bushes can take up to eight years from planting to maturity. “In an environment which has so many risks and daily challenges, it’s hard to keep an eye on the long-term,” says Alex.
Across the country, tea provides much more than just employment. In areas where government is stretched, tea estates also provide social services such as clinics, midwives, ambulances and schools. In addition, Satemwa has had Fairtrade certification since 2007 — the first such estate in Malawi. “We don’t always agree with the external standards,” says Alex. “In general, they help us, but the Ethical Tea Partnership wants us to pay a ‘living wage’. But how do we get there at the same time as our traditional black tea market is crashing in the UK and some of their members such as Tesco don’t pay a ‘living wage’ themselves?”
Some see tea growing as the legacy of another age but the Cathcart Kay family, along with those thousands living and working across all Malawi’s estates, must deal with the present and look to the future no matter how uncertain. “If we’re successful at repositioning ourselves, we’ll be OK. If not, we’ll have to sell or make an alliance with a bigger group,” says Alex. “It’s difficult, but still possible, to see my children working here.”
Other places to enjoy a cuppa in Malawi
• Lark Cafe, Lilongwe Great for a big breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea, this vegetarian-friendly cafe in unimaginatively named Area 10 is a landmark location for expats and NGO workers, so can be busy. Satemwa tea, including long glasses of speciality fusion blends served over ice, can be enjoyed here.
• Dedza Pottery & Lodge, Dedza On the M1 between Lilongwe and Blantyre, Dedza is the highest town in Malawi and lies in the shadow of 2195m Dedza Mountain. The pottery, cafe and lodge, owned by Christopher and Charity Stevens, has been producing unique ceramics since 1987. A pot of tea and a slice of signature cheesecake on the terrace make an excellent driver reviver.
• Mandala House, Blantyre The country’s oldest building, dating from 1882, this historic house was erected by Scottish brothers John and Frederick Moir, and served as an office for the Glasgow-based African Lakes Corporation — a large saltire flown above the entrance hints at its heritage. Coffee was one of the company’s traded commodities, and today, the house’s garden cafe remains a reliable venue for a proper caffeine boost.
• Getting there South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Blantyre and Lilongwe via Johannesburg. The writer travelled with Farside Africa.
• Where to stay The atmospheric, colonial-style Huntingdon House, on the Satemwa estate, is unique. Otherwise, try Game Haven, which is closer to Blantyre.
• When to go Travel from April to August when it’s dry and temperatures are moderate.
• Health Ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date. Malaria is endemic, so take appropriate prophylactics. Bilharzia is found in parts of Lake Malawi, but post-exposure medicines, available locally, are cheap and effective.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Malawi (6th edition) by Philip Briggs.