‘Zulu Tea’ creates a stir in the UK

4 February 2003

Deep in the KwaZulu-Natal heartland is an estate producing one of the most exclusive teas in the world. And Ntingwe tea is not only creating a stir among British connoisseurs – it’s also bringing employment to an underdeveloped area, and encouraging local “outgrowers” to grow tea on their own land.

The Province’s development agency, the Ithala Development Finance Corporation Limited (Ithala), established the Ntingwe Tea Estate in 1987 in a remote part of KwaZulu-Natal, near Nkandla – an area with unemployment and illiteracy rates of up to 60%.

According to Ithala, Ntingwe, the only employer of significance in an otherwise underdeveloped part of the province, produces leaf which is fetching top prices on the London Tea Market and is being sold as a speciality tea in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ntingwe tea is rated among the five best teas in the world, according to Arnold Adhihetty, a senior buyer and blender at Taylor’s of Harrogate, which markets Ntingwe tea in the United Kingdom, selling it as a pure tea under the estate’s name – in teabags marked “Zulu Tea”. Yorkshire Gold, a blend of Ntingwe tea and other varieties, is a second retail brand.

Johannesburg tea and coffee agent WM Cahn told the Sunday Times last year that South Africa’s tea export market is worth about R84-million a year, and that demand for Ntingwe tea is exceeding supply.

A company spokesman told that Sunday Times that the product was proving so popular with the British that 98% of WM Cahn’s Ntingwe stock had already been sold, “and the season is not yet over” – adding that WM Cahn had established ties with a number of buyers internationally and was looking to expand into the US, Europe and Pakistan.

Ithala says it has so far invested over R40-million in this commercial venture, which is rich in development spin-offs, “including job creation, provision of potable water and electricity, the development of creches and schools, and the promotion of a small business sector within the communities surrounding the estate.

About 300 ha of a suitable 585 ha has been planted so far, of which 200 ha of mature tea is already being harvested. As a foreign exchange earner, the estate is expected to generate around R450 million over the next 30 years. In the current financial year, 364 tons of black tea is expected to be produced, with these volumes progressively increasing to 1 750 tons by the year 2014.

While this is almost exclusively exported for the speciality tea market, “local demand for a pure, high-quality tea is growing, and Ithala is looking to make a percentage of its production available in South Africa”, Ithala says on its website.

Ntingwe employs more than 200 people on a permanent basis, with a further 430 being employed seasonally, with total employment envisaged to grow to about 1 200 when the estate is in full production.

Ithala is also actively promoting an empowerment programme in areas surrounding the estate, establishing tea “outgrowers” on their own land, who will ultimately supply the estate’s on-site processing plant with leaf.

“Already five farmers, each planting 0.125 ha with 1 000 tea plants, are participating, and the estate has received a further 55 applications which are currently being processed”, Ithala says. It is expected that outgrowers will eventually farm up to 0.4 ha each, with Ntingwe laying down parameters for them to ensure that the quality the estate has established is maintained.

Although the area in which Ntingwe is developed has a high agricultural potential, this has never been realised in the past due to remoteness from input supplies and markets. The development of the tea estate has unlocked the potential of the region, and started a development process which will continue to gain in momentum as the expansion of the estate continues.

SouthAfrica.info reporter