Tea in Malawi

Did you know that some of the biggest tea-producing countries are found in Africa? Since this year marks a special anniversary, this month I wanted to take you to Malawi.

Gabriella Lombardi
Gabriella Lombardi

Did you know that some of the biggest tea-producing countries are found in Africa? 

Since this year marks a special anniversary, this month I wanted to take you to Malawi. 

This small nation was the first to farm tea on a commercial scale and, to this day, despite its size, is second only to Kenya in terms of export volume. 


A Bit of History

Before winning its independence from Great Britain in 1964, in Nyasaland (as it was previously called), tobacco was already cultivated as far back as the 1860s. It was a particularly common crop, so common, in fact, that it was a long time before it was supplanted (or rather, joined) by tea.

The first attempts at cultivating tea leaves took place in 1878. A prominent figure during this historic period was Scottish missionary Dr. Elmslie, who cultivated plants from seeds that he acquired from the botanical gardens of Edinburgh. 

But these were still only minor initiatives undertaken by private individuals. It wasn’t until 1891, when Henry Brown, a coffee farmer from Sri Lanka, started planting tea seeds on his plantation, that large-scale cultivation began. For several decades the situation remained stable. Then the collapse of the tobacco market in the first half of the 20th century gave tea cultivation a boost.

As of today, more than 93% of all tea is produced by private companies and accounts for approximately 8% of all export revenue. The majority of plantations are concentrated in the Mulanje and Thyolo areas, both located in the southern region of the country. The teas produced in Malawi are primarily CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl, a method which makes it possible to obtain small fragments of leaves, perfect for blends and teabags), which are sold worldwide through Limbe auctions and private contracts. 

In recent years, as a result of climate change, higher temperatures and irregular rainfall have led to a reduction in the harvest and a weakening of the plants.  To cope with this problem, the Tea Research Foundation (founded in Mulanje) is actively experimenting with replacing old plants with high-yield clones.

The Primary Tea Production Areas in Malawi


This province, located in the southern part of the country, emerged as a tea-producing region in the 1920s, when more and more farmers decided to convert land previously used for rubber and tobacco production. Fun fact: Thyolo is actually pronounced cho-lo. Today the main companies in the area are Satemwa Tea Estate, Naming’omba Tea Estate, and Eastern Produce Malawi Ltd.. 

These three companies share a similar history. All were founded by colonists who decided to convert their cultivations into tea plantations, thus allowing them to withstand various market changes and expand into neighboring lands. However they differ in terms of their products. Satemwa produces over two thousand tons of tea every year: CTC black teas as well as an excellent range of orthodox (whole leaf) black, white, green, oolong, fermented, smoked, and flavored teas for the specialty market. 

Naming’omba, on the other hand, was acquired by a local company in 2012 after a unique beginning (its founder, Malcom Barrow, was a prominent figure in Malawian politics). The company produces very strong and malty CTC teas and decaffeinated black teas. 

Finally, Eastern Produce Malawi Ltd. is a more interregional company, with branches in Kenya and South Africa as well. It delegates tea cultivation to several thousand small land owners, with the objective of providing local populations with a livelihood, in the name of respect and sustainability.


Mulanje is located in the southeastern corner of Malawi. It’s only 40 km from Thyolo, but has significantly different terrain. The Mulanje area, in fact, is dominated by Mount Mulanje, an imposing rocky massif, on the slopes of which we find the tea plantations. 

The oldest plantation in the area is the Lujeri Tea Estate, which purchases its leaves from the Sukambizi Association Trust, an organization of small tea producers established with the objective of giving farmers more power in the negotiation of prices. Today the company has 5700 members who produce more than 1.5 million kg of CTC black tea. Lujeri works hard to defend farmers and educate them about their rights, and offers free courses to new workers with the objective of raising awareness about good practices. Among other things, the company also owns a nursery that propagates high-quality seedlings.


100 Years of Satemwa

As was mentioned at the beginning of the article, this year Malawi is celebrating an important anniversary: the centennial of the foundation of the Satemwa Tea Estate. For the occasion, I was able to interview the owner of the company, Alexander Kay. 

Good morning Alexander. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and about how your passion for tea began? 

My name is Alexander Kay. I’m 49 years old and I’m a third-generation tea producer. Alongside a group of tea aficionados, I manage Satemwa’s daily activities. In addition to managing the company, I’m also involved with the Tea Research Foundation (TRF), an institute that has conducted scientific research on tea for more than 60 years.

To digress for just a moment, can you tell us something about TRF and what its purpose is?

TRF helps us to guide our choices for the future. Given the effects of climate change as well as shifts in consumer behavior worldwide, we must rely on research to ensure that the Malawian and regional tea industry remains sustainable. Thanks to scientific knowledge, we can make informed choices by taking into account the local area, planning irrigation, and studying alternative methods for artificial fertilizers. 

Getting back to us, how was Satemwa created?

The Satemwa Tea Estate was founded in 1923 by my grandfather, McClean Kay. My grandfather was a rubber farmer, but he immediately realized the potential of tea. I still remember how often he used to tell me the story of the company’s beginnings and how proud he was of his decision. 

So it’s a family passion. And what type of tea do you produce?

The company has a unique history. It began with orthodox black tea and then, in the 1960s, shifted production to CTC black tea. We focused on this kind of tea for quite some time, but a few decades ago my father and I decided to reinsert ourselves in the market of whole leaf and specialty teas. 

What brought about this decision to reconvert?

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was reading a tea magazine and happened to find an article about white tea. Intrigued, I talked to my father. Together we decided to innovate our crops and, over the next few days, we began to taste and experiment with freshly dried leaves in order to understand where different flavors and aromatic profiles come from. We then took a series of trips to Asia in order to better understand how the production of specialty teas works. We purchased the necessary processing equipment and, in no time at all, created a micro-factory of high quality whole-leaf tea, which is today our flagship product. 

An adventure in Asia. It must have been an interesting experience. Where did you go exactly?

We travelled around a bit: Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan, and China, which is the cradle of tea culture. 

The dream of all tea-lovers. Getting back to us, what’s so special about the way that Satemwa handles tea production?

The most interesting and unique thing about Satemwa is that all of our different kinds of teas are produced in a single estate: black, white, green, Oolong, smoked, post-fermented, herbal, and floral, all of which are processed in the same facility, which can lead to some interesting attempts at blending. 

Another unique characteristic of our production is the crops that we use. We play with old Sinensis Sinensis plants, ancient Assamica varieties or Malawian crops developed by the Tea Research Foundation, experimenting and innovating to create products tailored to each individual client. 

Our entire production is traced and traceable, down to every single harvester. This is wonderful because behind every tea leaf, there are so many stories to tell. 

It must be very rewarding. Can you tell us anything about the climatic conditions of the soil and the location where you work?

Satemwa is located in the Shire Highlands, in the southern region of Malawi. Here in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are opposite. Spring is in September, just in time to bring fresh teas to Europe and North America for the winter season. 

In general, between December and March/April the climate is hot and rainy. During this season we produce approximately 80% of our annual production of CTC black tea and it’s an excellent time to produce some delicious steamed green teas.

From April to August the season is colder and drier, with frequent Chiperoni rains [a cool and humid wind that brings cloudy skies and constant drizzles in the southern part of the country during winter]. These conditions are ideal for the growth of our premium teas. 

Finally, in September temperatures begin to rise, and we enter the hot and dry season, with the harvest of our spring specialties taking place in October. 

So basically, every season is good for cultivating and harvesting tea. To conclude, could you tell us a bit about your future projects and goals? 

The world of Satemwa is an extraordinary ecosystem of people and communities. Our objective is to continue to create value in tea through innovation, equality, and sustainability, while at the same time protecting the communities that we work in. 

Our plans for the future are to continue safeguarding the environment and the surrounding natural resources and to cultivate an ever closer collaboration with our clients, consumers, and trusted partners, in the name of transparency and traceability.

We have some major innovations in mind for the future. All we can do is continue working on them with determination and confidence, as my grandfather used to say. 

Thank you so much for this interview. Now all that’s left is for us to taste the innovative teas that Satemwa is so proud of!