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An Introduction to the Teas of Africa

African tea has lived in the shadows of its brethren from China, India and even Sri Lanka, all from Asia. The tea plant Camellia Sinensis was brought to Mauritius by a French priest,Father Galloys, in 1760. However, it was planted on a large scale in 1770 by Pierre Poivre which the Governor of Mauritius, Robert Farquhar encouraged as commercial tea cultivation. But as he left Mauritius the plantations were abandoned till it was revived under the British governor, Sir John Pope Hennessy around 1850.

Around the time tea became a hot item in Great Britain, the British were looking for other suitable sites in its vast empire, where the sun never set in those days. Intrepid British planters started tea cultivation in Malawi, formerly known as Nyasaland which came under British rule in 1891. Today, beside Malawi tea is produced in Burundi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zaire and Zimbabwe.

Even though today tea is an export revenue earner for these countries yet with the exception of Kenya and South Africa they have not been able to strongly compete with major tea producing countries. This is because good tea production requires a combination of factors such as altitude, soil and climate which by and large is absent in Africa. As a consequence, the quality is not comparable. The predominance of low quality single estate black teas makes them suitable only in blends with the Indian tea.

However, a few varieties of tea from African countries have been able to carve out special niche segments in the world tea market. For example the black vanilla flavored tea of Mauritius. Tea seeds from the state of Assam in India were planted in the early twentieth century in Kenya. There in the conducive climate, the Assamese tea plants have done extremely well and is grown round the year. Not only that, some of the teas produced in Kenya are equal, if not better, in taste, color and flavor to Assam variety, prompting Kenya to position them as specials. Indeed Kenyan tea has come of age and it is now one of the world’s biggest producer and exporter of tea.

Africa also has its own tea plant, called Rooisbos (or Red diamond or Red bush). This is produced mainly in South Africa and is not exactly tea, but infused like tea. The species of this plant is different from the common tea plant, Camellia Sinensis and the scientific name of Rooisbos is Aspalathus linearis which belongs to legume family of plants.

It is harvested in the summer whereas real tea leaves are harvested in the spring. Rooisbos can be prepared in the same manner as the usual black tea. However, the brew has a reddish brown color, explaining why it is also referred as red tea. It is free of caffeine and more like herbal tea with nutritional and health benefits. Nevertheless, it is marketed like tea.

Variety is the spice of life and the teas of Africa adds that spice to the vibrant world of tea. No wonder tea is the second most consumed drink in the world. The first ? You have guessed it right – is water.