As mentioned before, we’ve had some amazing weekends away at tea plantations. Several estates have renovated the old colonial homes into guest houses, including Lujeri and Huntington House. Both sites are stunning, as I’ve written about before. There is something about the houses and the pace of life on the estate that makes you feel like you have truly gone back in time. The weekends spent at tea estates are always full of time outside, playing lawn sports (including the newly discovered paddle tennis) and drinking tea or gin and tonics. It is easy to take the sprawling, emerald tea fields for granted, believing them to have been planted there just to make the estates more picturesque, more breath-takingly beautiful. Yet tea, as a cash crop, plays a crucial role in the history of Malawi and its current economy.
While researching tea for an article for Ulendo, I discovered that Malawi is the oldest consistent producer of tea on the entire African continent.
A Brief History of Tea Cultivation in Malawi
Deep within the Blantyre CCAP Mission’s botanical gardens are the two oldest growing tea plants in Africa. These two plants are responsible for one of Malawi’s largest exports and some of the finest tea produced in the world. Tea cultivation in Africa began as early as 1850 in Natal, South Africa, where it was later abandoned to grow sugar. After Natal, Malawi (or then Nyasaland) developed tea as a cash crop and is the oldest ongoing tea producer on the continent.
The early European settlers in Nyasaland concentrated on coffee and tobacco but continued to experiment with tea, wheat, ginger, and fruit trees in their gardens. The first shipment of tea and coffee plants arrived in Nyasaland in 1878 from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, yet only one coffee plant seedling survived the long voyage. Mr. Elmslie, a missionary, brought another shipment of seedlings from Edinburgh in 1886. According to most sources, the Blantyre Mission gardener, Mr. Duncan, was able to keep two of the tea plants alive where they continue to grow today. Other sources, however, dispute the provenance of these two tea plants. In 1895, the Nyasaland Foreign Office demanded to know why plants had not been sent by Kew Gardens. The manager of Kew Gardens at the time, Sir W. Thistleton Dyer, responded defensively that he had indeed sent several consignments of tea plants in June 1886, September 1886, and August 1894. Sir Dyer complained that no acknowledgement of receipt had been sent. We know the three shipments passed through the African Lakes Company and on to Dr. Laws at the Livingstonia Mission. There is no record, however, of the tea surviving or being planted, but there is some speculation that the two plants at the Blantyre Mission could be from the Kew Gardens.
While the Missionaries were responsible for nurturing the first Nyasaland tea plants, Henry Brown is often thought of as the father of the Nyasaland tea industry. He moved to Nyasaland in 1891 after his coffee plantations in Ceylon were decimated by disease. Mr. Brown had seen the tea plants at the Mission and asked for twenty seeds, which he planted in Mulanje at his Thornwood Estate and at Lauderdale Estate. Mr. Brown was passionate about the tea’s potential and replaced every dead coffee plant with tea on his estate until it became the predominant crop. A contemporary of Mr. Brown, Rev. A. J. Smith wrote that “the real pioneer of tea in Nyasaland is undoubtedly Mr. Henry Brown who … for many years persevered through sunshine and storm to make the industry a success.”
Despite Brown’s enthusiasm, it took Nyasaland tea several years to develop quality and taste. The Rev. Smith tasted local tea as early as 1887 and described his disgust, “oh the horror of it.” Mr. Brown shared his home-brewed tea at Blantyre’s Sports Week. Mr. Maw “tasted it and found it was awful, in fact so awful that it merited the well known word [bloody] which prefixed the ‘awful’.” However, tea cultivation continued to improve and progress; the persistent Mr. Brown submitted his samples at the Agriculture and Sports Show in 1898 where his won first prize. The report from the show indicates “tea perhaps is not generally suited to the Shire Highlands but Mlanje with its greater rainfall has produced tea which should become one of the by-products of the Protectorate.”
At the turn of the century, tea samples were sent to Kew Gardens, the Imperial Institute, and commercial brokers for evaluation. Unfortunately, the samples were packed with tobacco, which overpowered the smell and taste so it could only be judged based on appearance. In 1909 Mr. McClounie from Nyasaland’s Scientific Department toured several estates in Mulanje and declared that the tea bushes were growing well and found the tea to be “very palatable.”
Tea was also experimentally planted in Limbe, Zomba, Mwanza, Mangochi, Karonga, and Michiru but failed to flourish. In Thyolo, however, tea grew well and the region slowly began to develop in the 1920’s and 1930’s as planters there abandoned rubber and tobacco.
1911 was a seminal year for tea production in Nyasaland. Lauderdale Estate introduced a hydroelectric factory complete with rollers and dryers. The Agricultural Department reported that “the local tea has greatly improved since the introduction of proper firing machinery, and The Blantyre and East Africa Limited are now erecting a large factory where they will carry out the making and packing of tea from their own adjoining estates: This is most fortunate as small estates cannot bear the cost of expensive machinery.”
Exporting the tea was a laborious and costly business. In the early days of production, J. A. Hutson writes that the “original route was by head load down the Shire River and thence by river steamer to the sea, and by 1903 it was estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 Africans were engaged in this work.” The process improved in 1909 when the Shire Highlands railroad opened and was later extended to the Zambezi in 1915.
Despite the logistical challenges, exports continued to steadily rise; by 1905 there were 260 acres producing 1200 pounds of black tea. In 1908 Nyasaland exported 23,000 pounds of black tea, which was valued at 598 pounds sterling. By 1918 there were 4,523 acres of tea. In 1924, Nyasaland was exporting tea worth one million pounds sterling. The collapse of the tobacco market drove many planters to transition to tea and by 1940 there were 18,528 acres of tea, roughly divided between Mulanje and Thyolo. While tobacco surpassed tea as the largest foreign exchange earner in the 1960’s, tea production continued to increase and in 2006, Malawi was exporting over 45,000 metric tons of black tea.
Today Malawi is making concerted efforts to promote small holder tea farming and fair trade tea; at least sixteen percent of tea acres are managed by small holder farmers. Malawian tea is in high demand and is exported to over thirty countries around the world. And this whole robust industry stems from the two 123-year old tea plants still growing on the grounds of the Blantyre Mission.