KZN: world-class tea producer

21 May 2008

Thinking of KwaZulu-Natal does not usually bring images of world-class tea production to mind. However, Nkandla, in the rural heartland of the province, is home to a world-renowned tea producer that is changing the lives of a community.

The 25-hectare Ntingwe Tea Estate was created by the Ithala Development Finance Corporation in 1988 and later funded jointly by KwaZulu-Natal’s agriculture and environmental affairs department, retailer Woolworths said in a statement this week.

Thirteen years and 425 hectares later, the estate counts Woolworths and the most prestigious tea merchants in Europe among its clientele. Ntingwe tea has been a feature on Woolworths’ shelves as a single-origin tea for the past five years, with supporting empowered enterprise development being a key focus area for the retail chain.

They founders of the tea estate set out to help the impoverished rural community by forming a business that would create employment and facilitate socioeconomic development in the region, as nearly 60% of the region’s residents were unemployed at the time.

Labour-intensive crop

Why tea? The region’s climate was considered suitable for tea growing, while the crop had also been identified as labour-intensive, thus providing employment and infrastructural development for the area.

Veteran industry expert Ryle Perera, now general manager of Ntingwe Tea, was contracted to develop the commercial side of the business.

From the beginning the estate decided to focus on the premium single origin tea market. While their tea was produced on a single estate and was unblended, the commercial tea market was dominated by tea blends containing ingredients that are produced all over the world.

The enterprise now employs around 900 people from surrounding villages, and has helped bring electricity, running water, telephones, clinics and schools to the area. In addition, the estate has trained farm labourers, electricians, managers, administrators and nurserymen.

Furthermore, the Ntingwe Tea Estate works with local growers, who grow tea on their land. The estate purchases leaves produced from these plots for processing at the factory.

World-class tea

“The premium tea market is very discerning,” said Perera, adding that the local marked should pay more attention to locally produced single origin tea. “The range and breadth of our clientele proves that this country grows and produces world class tea.”

Ntingwe tea is produced from plants that are harvested during the summer months. Quality is paramount and trained tea tasters routinely check every batch to ensure the estate is producing the best daily.

In keeping with Woolworths’ good business journey strategy to reduce the retail chain’s impact on the environment, Ntingwe supplies Woolworths with tea packaged in a container made from recycled material.

“Ntingwe tea’s success is truly inspirational,” said Woolworths head of foods Julian Novak. “We are privileged to have been part of it. Woolworths continues to identify and work with emerging suppliers and give them access to the formal marketplace.”

SAinfo reporter

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