photo by Satemwa Tea Estate

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INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER CATHCART KAY

1. How long have you been working in the world of tea and how did you get into it?

Since 1997, with some holiday work before that. Born into it!

2. Have you always been a tea lover?

I have drunk tea for as long as I can remember. But being exposed to the other origins types and process of tea after a visit to Japan, then Taiwan in 2006, opened up a new world of flavour and possibilities.

3. What is your favourite tea?

I don’t have one.
- A strong black CTC 108 varietal with milk on my parent's lawn in the evening.
- Antlers on ice on a hot morning
- Hand rolling some green tea with my daughter; drinking
it fresh, undryed with a minimal of processing
- A Darjeeling given as a gift by a fellow tea lover who has been to origin to select it specially for his collection.

4. What do you like best about your job?

I'ts never dull.
There is the opportunity to both repeat things day after day, season after season, trying to get better at it as well as dealing with new local and global challenges as varied as building a new bridge to serve both our logistical requirements as well as community needs to trying to develop a new oolong for a specific Japanese customer to his requirements to dealing with an insurance claim for tea machinery coming from India taken by Somali pirates!

5. What is your philosophy as a tea grower?

We need to leave the world a better place; better tea, grown in a more sustainable way, producing value for the communities involved in producing it.

6. Describe your plantation (location, native plants, animals etc)

SATEMWA Tea Estates is a family owned estate in the Shire Highlands of Malawi. We have 900ha of tea, 400ha of sustainable eucalyptus forest and 40ha of coffee. We are situated on a 1000m – 1200m above sea level on the slopes of the Thyolo Mountain.
The natural areas and forests in Malawi have been decreasing over the last couple of decades, which is a result of a rapid increase in population in the country. This means that many local animals/species have been losing their natural habitats because they were poached and hunted. At SATEMWA the natural areas are increasing with a wide spectrum of trees, flowers and other plants, as well as flowing water streams, which altogether provide high value ecosystems, and a sanctuary for many of the local and endemic species. The corridors on the compound ensure that the animals living here can move around freely in the forests, without having to cross roads or residential areas (villages, fields etc.). The corridors at SATEMWA are protected and several indigenous hard wood trees are replanted to expand the perimeter. Today there are several endemic species roaming the corridors, such as the indigenous birds Thyolo Alethe (Alethe Choloensis) and Bartailed Trogan.

7. What makes your tea special?

SATEMWA Tea Estates is triple certified. We were the first estate in Malawi to get Fair Trade certification and after that we quickly obtained Rain Forrest Alliance and UTZ certifications. Further, SATEMWA Tea Estates is the only Specialty Tea producer in Malawi. We belief our unique cultivars, the terroir and the processing techniques result in some unique tastes and exceptional tea varieties.
We are not afraid of something new and we do not try to forget what we learned in the past. We keep on experimenting everyday with different withering times, drying periods, temperatures in the dryer, pressure of the steamer, etc…
We think the main key to make nice tea is a lot of trial and error and a lot of tasting!

8. What challenges, if any, does the Malawian tea industry face?

Malawi is a land locked country which makes it not always easy to export. The Malawian tea industry is mainly known for its CTC black tea production. The Malawian CTC black tea is famous with the big Tea Bag blenders. The Malawian Specialty Tea production is not well known but not less interesting of course. SATEMWA Tea Estates is pioneering in this Specialty Tea market which is not always easy. We do not get the governmental marketing support like Rwanda and Kenya but we have amazing customers who are enthusiastic about our teas and who spread the word! We are convinced there is a space for Malawian Specialty Teas in an upcoming global Specialty Tea market. A new origin is born!

9. Are there any plans for the future of your plantation? Any new teas on the horizon?

SATEMWA is working on some new Oolongs and we also try to flavor some of our teas with local available herbs and flowers. We got some great results when mixing pure mint or lemon verbena with green tea.

We are currently setting up a project with a neighboring small holder tea growers association. We work closely with them to increase their plucking standards (2 leaves and a but). With this better quality green leaf SATEMWA can help them to process high quality Specialty Teas in the SATEMWA factory. When SATEMWA is visiting their customers we take along the small holder black and oolong teas and once they get sold the small holders get their profit!