Even though Africa is a relative newcomer to growing tea, it's the 4th largest tea producer today after China, Sri Lanka, and India. African teas are trendy, tasty and on their way to becoming the new thing in tea.

In 1903 a European settler named Caine planted the first tea on a two acre parcel of land in Limuru in Kenya's Kiambu District, establishing the first tea gardens in what was then a British colony, before spreading into the Kenya Highlands of Kericho and Nandi. By the 1920's African tea was being manufactured commercially by the British, until the 1950's when South Asia won independence from Great Britain.  

Today Africa produces nearly half a million tons of tea annually, grown primarily in the African nations of Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Smaller tea gardens are also starting to develop in the regions of Burundi, Cameroon, Congo Zaire, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zambia.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that world tea production is expected to grow approximately 1.7% per year, through 2014.  The African countries of Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Tanzania is expected to see significant growth in production as tea bushes mature and come of age, and the tea workers experience, knowledge, and skills in growing and producing tea reaches the top.

Tea grows in nearly every country in Africa with the largest tea producer being Kenya.  Tea gardens there thrive on both sides of the Great Rift Valley at altitudes ranging from 4,900 feet to 8,850 feet. The tea thrives in the higher elevations in the cool mountain air and the rich, mineral filled volcanic soil.  Moist air rises from Lake Victoria and falls as rain over the mountains providing abundant moisture for the tea bushes with approximately 47 to 106 inches of rain per year.

The Tea Board of Kenya was established in 1950 to oversee their most important cash crop. The Kenya Tea Development Authority or KTDA was established fifteen years later in 1965 to further promote and support teacultivation by small-holder farmers in growing regions of Kenya.

Today in Kenya the tea plantations cover over 4,000 square miles with more than a billion tea bushes.  The tea is almost entirely hand-plucked with each tea worker plucking approximately 30,000 leaf shoots per day. Even though the tea bushes flush year round, the best teas are harvested in late January to early February.

Over 12% of Kenya's population works in the tea industry today, with approximately half a million people involved in some aspect of tea production. Today the KTDA has 430,000 smallholder farmers who grow and sell their tea to 98 tea factories, 55 of which are under KTDA management, with others privately owned by multinational tea companies, in which four of the largest in the country are:  Unilever, James Finlay, Williamson Tea (based in the U.K.), and Kenya-based Eastern Producers.

The tea factories operated by the KTDA are situated in central locations to the surrounding tea gardens.  The tea farmers bring their freshly plucked leaf to a weighing centre each day where it is credited to their accounts.

From the weighing station the leaf then goes to the tea factory where it is graded.  For many of the farmers tea is their main income, accounting for up to 90% of their yearly income.

Most of the tea produced in Africa is CTC (cut-tear-curl) used in tea bag blends.  Kenya has been recognised as the industry leader in CTC tea production and technology. With nearly 90% of its black teas sold as bulk CTC tea, Kenya uses its expertise to position its teas favourably in the world market, and i turn the tea blends of many large international countries.  A small amount of orthodox green and white tea is also beginning to be produced in Kenya.

Mombasa, Kenya's main port town situated on the Indian Ocean coast, houses the second largest tea auction house in the world. Every Tuesday of the week, throughout the year, brokers working on behalf of the producers sell marked lots of tea to importers from around the world.

Up to 85% of Kenya's annual tea production is sold in this way, with the remainder sold either privately to tea importers, or consumed locally.

Africa's second highest peak, Mount Kenya is located in the eastern section of the Rift Valley.  In the local Kikuyu language it is called Mount Kirinyaga, and it's one of the few locations on the equator that maintains glaciers.  Located in Nyandarua or the Aberdare Highlands, Mount Kenya is home to the Kikuyu god Ngai.

The mountainous area of Mount Kenya is named after Englishman Joseph Thompson, the  first Western explorer to venture into this region of Kenya.  Part of the highlands were  designated as the Aberdare National Park in 1950, an area stretching down the moun tain to the Nyeri region and the outlying eastern tea growing district.

Although most of their tea is CTC for tea bag blends, due to worldwide interest in orthodox specialty teas the Kenya Tea Development Authority has recently begun to diversify into orthodox manufacturing at the Kangaita Tea Estate.

Also, some Kenyan producers are working on making different styles of white and green "natural" teas, grown at high altitudes with cooler temperatures with no need for pesticides. The tea bushes are planted close together forming their own tight natural canopy preventing the growth of weeds, therefore herbicides are also not needed.  

Special clonal varieties of tea plants were carefully chosen to produce an excellent selection of large-leafed teas, as well as new orthodox machinery was imported from India.  In fact, these new teas from the Kangaita Tea Estate have turned out to be so successful there are plans for furthering orthodox tea manufacture.

This is good news for tea drinkers everywhere as there is always room for more quality orthodox teas to choose from and ... Enjoy.


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