The Laying of a Legacy
Exploring Satemwa, a thriving tea estate amid Africa’s oldest tea-growing region.
We were traveling back in time, leaving the sprawling city of Blantyre behind as we meandered south along the highway into the bright green countryside of the Shire Highlands. Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest peak, loomed somewhere in the distance like a mist-cloaked sentinel, while all around us waist-high bushes blanketed the gently undulating hills in neat, orderly rows. At some point, we detoured from the asphalt, found ourselves on dirt roads carved between plantations, and pulled up outside a great big mansion skulking behind thick stone walls.
This was Huntingdon House, for many decades the home of the Cathcart Kay family — known for establishing Satemwa, the thriving tea estate on which Huntingdon now functions as a guesthouse packed with Old World charm. Built in 1934 after fire destroyed the original farmstead, it’s surrounded by manicured lawns fringed by a thick African garden that bristles with birdlife. Inside, creaking wooden floors link the lounges, dining room and library to five enormously proportioned suites furnished with antiques. Old maps and family photographs serve as clues detailing the house’s colonial history, and countless spots to curl up with pots of tea lay in between.
After a great sleep on a huge, canopied bed, my fellow guests and I enjoyed a longwinded, colonial-style breakfast — home-mixed cereals with farm-fresh milk, followed by perfectly poached eggs on bread baked that morning. Reclining on the veranda as we feasted, we were joined by Robert Kay, Satemwa’s resident raconteur and the family’s presiding patriarch, known throughout Malawi as “Chip.”
The octogenarian — who maintains he cured himself of cancer by drinking copious quantities of black tea — received his nickname when an American woman laid eyes on him as a baby and promptly declared him “a chip off the old block.” The old block in question was Maclean Kay, an Ayreshire-born Scot who’d been a rubber planter in Malaya. He arrived in Malawi in 1924, bought a tobacco farm, and set about nursing his first batch of Camellia sinensis tea bushes that would launch Satemwa’s transformation into what it is today.
In 1926, Maclean began ripping out the old tobacco and planted the estate’s first tea field. Two years later, he introduced Malawi’s first Assamica variety seeds from India, giving rise to a line of black, red-liquoring African teas that continue to be used in blends made by some of the world’s biggest brands.
Tea takes root in Malawi
Malawi’s tea industry traces its roots back to 1891, when another pioneering Scottish planter, Henry Brown, arrived from Sri Lanka and planted the first tea seeds. (Bizarrely, those seeds had originated in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens, brought to Africa by Scottish missionaries.) In the early 20th century, when infestations of the coffee borer beetle brought a short-lived coffee boom to a shocking conclusion, farmers swiftly turned to tea as an alternative crop.
Today, it’s the second biggest export after tobacco out of a country with a fragile economy and a recent history that’s been fraught with droughts and floods. Malawi produces 10 percent of Africa’s tea and stands as the continent’s second-biggest producer after Kenya, with annual production of around 2.3-million kilograms. Some 99 percent of it is exported — mostly to the U.K. and South Africa — accounting for roughly 9 percent of Malawi’s agricultural export earnings.
Getting to this point, though, has not been easy. Malawi doesn’t share the climatic and geographic advantages of Kenya, where tea can be grown at lower altitudes. And being landlocked and far from the nearest port means Malawi’s tea is expensive to ship. But tea-growers like Chip’s father developed a cost-effective strategy for producing consistent, medium-quality teas with a focus on high yields. Most of what’s produced in Malawi is small-leaf CTC (cut-tear-curl) variety teas, which are sought for their bright color and rich flavor. They’re used mostly in the tea bags and loose-leaf blends of global brands such as PG Tips, Tetleys, Lipton Yellow Label, and Five Roses.
After his sixth cup of black tea, Chip packed us into his well-used 4×4 and took us on a full tour of the grounds, slashing through the presumed romance of running a tea estate by pausing occasionally to issue instructions to workers. Today, Fair Trade-registered Satemwa employs around 2,500 people; many of them reside on the estate, which also operates a clinic and primary school for the families of all Satemwa staff.
We stopped on a ridge with sweeping views across the tea fields and watched as hundreds of women worked the fields, steadily filling their baskets with the plants’ young, topmost leaves. From October to April, Thyolo’s abundant rains cause the tea bushes to flush continuously, and tea-pickers will each pluck 100 kg of leaves on an average day’s haul during this high season. Around 2,500 tons of black tea is produced per year, Chip said as he drove us to the tea factory his father built in 1937. Green leaves from bushes grown across Satemwa’s 890 hectares are still dried and processed there today, but what’s changed — thanks to some revolutionary discoveries — is the range of teas being produced.
In 2006, Satemwa found that leaves from the African Assamica bushes could in fact also produce mild, non-astringent green teas with sweet and fruity notes, as well as delicate white teas with soft, floral scents. A variety of speciality teas were thus developed under Chip’s son, Alexander, a horticulturalist who now manages the estate.
In the cupping room, we sniffed and tasted a lineup of white, green and Oolong teas, plus bergamot-infused Earl Grey and at least two dozen more specialty varieties bound for far-flung, high-end destinations. Among the artisanal gems we sampled were “Zomba pearls,” comprising individual hand-rolled tea “cocoons” that unfurl as they infuse, and “Satemwa Handmade Treasure,” a black tea derived from a varietal with exquisite flavors. “Thyolo Misty Oolong” is produced using leaves from the original fields planted by MacLean Kay, while many of the other handmade artisan varieties were bought as green-leaf teas from a group of local smallholder farmers.
Our time at Satemwa wasn’t only about sipping tea, though, as around 45 hectares of the estate are given over to coffee, grown here since 1971. We stopped for a peek at the estate’s Arabica coffee nursery, where tiny plants are hand-nurtured before being transplanted into the fields at altitudes of between 900 and 1,000 meters. Unlike the neat tea bushes, the coffee plants are scraggly, wild-looking things, left to grow as naturally as possible. Coffee’s quality and robust flavor, explained Chip, comes from the plant’s resilience; the hardier the plant, the better the coffee.
Satemwa’s coffee beans are all hand-harvested and then laid out in the sun for natural drying over 10 to 15 days. Output is relatively small, but the roasted beans fetch a premium price, said Chip.
Still, the most precious commodity on the estate, in my opinion, was neither tea nor coffee nor any crop available for purchase; rather, it was the bits of land that have been left uncultivated. Interspersed between the plantations lay remnant patches of indigenous mahogany forest, living reminders of what vast parts of southern Malawi once looked like. Walking through one of these protected pockets was like stepping into a primordial, pre-human world. Fallen leaves rested thick as mattresses underfoot, and the air was moist and cool and dim. Overhead, the canopy of knitted branches and tangled vines blotted out the sky. Birds flitted through the air, and our ears filled with the buzz of insects zipping between countless wild blooms.
This, I imagined, was Satemwa’s real legacy — a rare and priceless sliver of Africa in a currency that cannot be traded or sold or sipped in cups over breakfast thousands of miles away. It can only ever be experienced in person.