The Greenest Tea Chat
For Earth Day this year, our queen of green, Kunthearath Nhek-Morrisey, sat down (virtually that is) with Alexander Kay and Wouter Verelst of the Satemwa Tea Estate in Malawi. Satemwa and Big Heart Tea Co. have been partners since 2014, ya’ll. We support this farm because of its delicious tea leaves, obvs, but we love Satemwa because of its practices. Focusing on deforestation, sustainable practices, and the human element of tea production, Satemwa stands out in a country full of beautiful tea farms. They are an integral part of our commitment to bring you single-origin, organic and sustainable tea.
Alex is a third generation tea planter on the estate invested in growth of the community of farmers in Malawi as well as innovative and sustainable tea growing practices. We suggest reading his parts with a British accent for full impact. Wouter is in charge of all things tea education and relationship management for the farm. He and his family lived in Malawi for seven years before returning to Belgium to set up the Satemwa Europe direct trade office. They’re a sustainable dream team, ya?
Kunthearath: It’s good to see you! How have you been?
Wouter: All good! All good! I’m still in Europe...I’m based in Europe. I lived in Malawi for a while, but it’s difficult to go back now. I’m looking forward when everything opens again.
Kunthearath: Thank you so much for joining Big Heart on Instagram Live! I’ve been hosting lives around sustainability and each guest has talked about different topics. Today is my last live for the month and I’m closing out with you at Satemwa Tea and how tea farmers, like Satemwa, are working towards sustainability and what that looks like - the challenges you’ve had as you transition to that and what programs you have in place.
Kunthearath: What time is it?
Wouter: It’s the same, [Belgium and Malawi] are in the same time zone, so around 5:00 in the afternoon for both of us.
Kunthearath: Introduce yourself a little bit and tell us the great things the farm is doing in working toward sustainability and the current programs you have in place.
Wouter: I would start slowly in Alex’s absence so he can correct me when I’m wrong and he can add of course. So ya, how Satemwa started to be become green and the trigger was there from the start.
In 1923, the philosophy of Alex’s grandfather was always focused on sustainable agriculture and protecting wildlife and indigenous forest on the estate. So I think that’s something, ya, very typical of Satemwa.
And if you walk on Satemwa you will see of course, the green tea fields, but you will also see some indigenous forests that we really try to protect. And even, where we can, we even enlarge it and that gives the opportunity for wildlife to travel around the estate and to have a kind of wildlife corridor.
Kunthearath: Hi, Alex! It’s good to meet with you finally, face to face. For those listening, Alex is currently in Malawi and Wouter is in Belgium. Wouter is just starting to explain to us a little about Satemwa and Alex is showing us some landscape there. That’s gorgeous, Alex. Giving us a little glimpse of Malawi, thank you.
Alex: A bit of a gray day here today.
Wouter, do you want to continue?
Wouter: Alex, can you show one of the corridors behind you? Ya, that’s one of these corridors I was talking about. Even in the estate, we’re trying to keep the indigenous forest and we plant a lot of hardwoods to revitalize the forest there.
Kunthearath: And how long have you been doing that from a sustainability perspective?
Wouter: The wildlife corridors that was, Alex, even when your grandfather started I think?
Alex: Ya, I would say the past twenty years we’ve been working on it more and more actively. We had a lady from the University of Malawi come and do a study. There are a lot of endemic bird species in the area, so one of the things we did was commission a study where she helped us identify important species and things like that that we can actively bring into our management system and increase these important species. That’s one of the things we’ve been working on in terms of biodiversity.
Kunthearath: Do you find that it’s been challenging at all just being the region that you’re in or do you think the adoption has been well received? Are there other tea farmers moving in this direction [and participating] in programs like yourself?
Alex: I think one of the things being in Malawi is we are resource poor and so one of the things that tends to happen is that people recycle a lot of things anyway. You know, there is very little waste in Malawi. A lot of stuff tends to be reused.
Wouter: Ya, like Alexander mentioned, there is a lot of recycling going on in Malawi in general anyhow. A lot of things get reused, especially in a resource-poor area like Malawi where it is very difficult to import. We are landlocked, so it is very difficult to import new goods. We have to cope with what we have and try to be creative. And that, I think is in general in Malawi, but that’s also what Satemwa is doing quite well. Is trying to make the best out of the resources we have. Like an old machine, we’ll turn into another machine or equipment that we can use for example. So that’s really the way of working in Malawi.
Kunthearath: Would you say the farm is rather circular...within the estate? And what does the circular activity actually look like in practice?
Alex: The biggest sort of thing that we bring on are of course packaging. Packaging is something that has to be export quality so we have to bring in packaging. When there’s damages, a lot of the packaging gets reused, we’ll repurpose it into other things.
The other big import is fuel. We do use quite a lot of diesel. Our power is very unreliable so we do have to have standby generators. Our main source of power in Malawi, it’s over 90% hydro power. The electricity source is very clean when it’s available, but it tends to be rather unreliable so we have to have standby diesel generators. And that’s the sort of big hurdle we want to work on, have been trying to work on for the last four years actually, is to get some solar power in. But it’s terribly expensive and cost of finance is sky high, so that’s something we’re really struggling with.
The other thing we do use to an extent in some fields is fertilizer and that’s something we’re actively working on at the moment to try and reduce that by adopting different practices, using composts and manure and trying to investigate that use a lot. And really trying to work on soil health and manage that much better.
And that’s one of the things where in this resource-poor environment we really lack the technology to really understand what’s going on inside our fields in terms of microbiology. But that’s something that we’re actively working on and really trying to improve our understanding of how to manage that better.
Kunthearath: Is that just a function of lack of resources and the geography of where you are or is that applicable to the majority of tea farmers world wide? Is it unique to Satemwa?
Alex: I’ll answer that in two parts. One is that generally an understanding of the microbiology in soil has been lacking in agriculture. Being able to quantify what’s going on inside the soil at a deeper level than simply the traditional measuring the minerals in the soil, but really measuring the life in the soil. I think that’s the general movement that a lot of agriculturalists are really becoming aware of and understanding the physical importance of that life, that interaction of the microbiology and the plants.
And ya, the lack of our ability to understand that is hampered by the technology, it is really an emerging science. A lot of people generally have good soil practices but the understanding of what their influence is on the microbiology of the soil is not really there.
Wouter: One other interesting example for example, it’s quite hard to get access to organic fertilizer in Malawi, so a lot of it is made on Satemwa. So all the organic compounds we can find, we try to remake into compost.
But we are working with one NGO based in Malawi and these guys are collecting organic waste from markets like a lot of vegetable waste and they transform it into ya, fertilizer and we are working with them. Satemwa is a kind of test case to see how our fields react on that. It is completely organic, but it’s really kind of a pilot project that we’re working on to see if we can recycle that organic waste from these vegetable markets all around the south of Malawi, which is ya, quite an exciting program we are working on.
Kunthearath: That’s great! How long have you been partnering with the NGO? And how long is the program going and when do you think it will go live and be a program that will be embedded into the process?
Alex: We started in 2019 and actually, the NGO has just evolved into a commercial company now. So it’s been quite a successful project. The NGO remains and tries to develop waste from other markets. That’s now evolved into a commercial business, so that’s been successful and we were their biggest off-takers for that.
Kunthearath: So does that translate into certification and being able to provide organic certification and analysis that would come from that process?
Alex: We have a basic analysis for that compost, so the mineral analysis is there. They are working with some universities to try and understand the microbiology that’s available in that product. And one of the things that we want to work within the process would be organic certification so that it can fit into our certification, but that’s still a few years off.
Kunthearath: How do you determine which product you’re going to test it on? Any of the teas we’re currently using?
Wouter: There might be some of the white broken tea that is under that field, so the white tea Big Heart Tea is using and maybe the black tea might be under that program where we apply that type of fertilizer.
Kunthearath: Interesting…So what does this do to the price? Do you think working with the NGO becomes a cost of doing business and evolving into a much more sustainable way of doing business from the economy and agriculture perspective. Do you think there will be a price difference between conventional and organic and how you are developing this program?
Alex: I think it’s a bit early to say, but my personal belief is that the tea bushes are going to become healthier and more productive in the longer term.
Looking at soil health, we have seen with some of the compost-free sprays we’ve been applying we do have pest, a mosquito bug that is a fairly common pest in the tea world and with more hotter days as a result of climate change we’ve been seeing this pest become more of a problem. In the past 8 years, it’s really developed into a problem. And since we started looking at some of these alternative ways of looking at plant health, we’ve seen a drastic reduction in that pest population and the economic damage.
It’s really helping the plant develop a healthier immune system. A healthier plant has a better immune system and can deal with the pest better. I feel that in the longer term, I don’t think it will be an increase in price.
Wouter: Kunthearath, that’s also because we have a direct trade relation that really makes a difference. Because at the moment, we do not have the certification, we are going through all the steps we need to go towards organic certification, but at the moment, we do not have the costly certification. We did not see the auditors, so that will be, as Alexander said in the next couple of years. We are going through that transition. But for customers who need the actual stamps on the papers, then yes, we would have to charge the premium to cover all of the audits and etc. But with direct trade relations like we have, it’s slightly different. You will come to Malawi to see with your own eyes.
Kunthearath: Lisa and I are planning it right now! We are looking forward to it.
W: You are the eyes. You are basically the auditors with your own eyes. So that’s the difference.
Kunthearath: You bring up a good point that we do work with small farms and direct trade. And we recognize the lengthy challenging processes that small farms have to go through. You guys are one of the bigger co-ops that we work with. You go through the process organically but it’s just that certification that is so costly. And for a small farm, that’s difficult. For us, to a certain degree, we recognize that and we believe that the steps and practicing the old traditional way of farming is pretty organic and we’re proud to say we work with farmers who are working toward these things as part of their production cycle.
W: Also, the smallholder farmers that are around Satemwa where you get herbals from — spearmint and hibiscus — these farmers, once we get certified, of course Satemwa will try to help them get certified. At the moment, that is quite far off. I mean, we work hand in hand, so they are not all next to each other. So to certify these scattered farmers, it is not a joke and it will be costly. But these guys, they are using very organic methods anyhow.
K: I think it’s just as important to understand the methodology and the practices that go toward growing so we can also feel good about the fact that we know our farmers are working towards it and disciplined in their way of growing.
What would you say is the most challenging or rewarding thing that you have done within the sustainability program at Satemwa?
Alex: One of the things we haven’t touched on yet about sustainability is the people and the community that are involved in producing the tea. One of the important things that we’ve been working on are good opportunities for education for the people involved in tea production in Satemwa whether it is in terms of themselves, you know adult education, or for the kids of people working on Satemwa.
That’s one of the things we’ve been working on for the last 15 years or so and we’ve had some really great stories of people who’ve managed to complete their degrees and move on to different things. Some have come back to work at Satemwa, which is great. That’s an important part of what we see as sustainability is contributing and improving people’s living standards and livelihood.
Kunthearath: I think that’s huge regardless of what industry and business you're in, regardless of what part of the world acknowledging sustainability of our staff and human capital is [critical] to a sustainable business. Thank you for acknowledging that.
Wouter: And a lot starts at the Satemwa school. It’s a little school on Satemwa. The teachers are government teachers, but the school is completely supported by Satemwa and a lot of practical permaculture projects are happening there. A lot of education on sustainability on forestry and good energy practices start there. So I think that’s something we definitely need to put in the spotlight because the little children are the future, not only for Satemwa but also for the rest of Malawi.
Kunthearath: It’s humans that really power everything that we do and paying homage and respect to those that make it happen for use is tantamount to success, right? You all have contributed to our success as well from a supplier perspective. We’ve appreciated this relationship that we’ve had with you. Always transparent in our communication and I think very collaborative. For me…it’s more than just a vendor and customer relationship. It’s about human relationships. I appreciate that we’ve established that. I appreciate that you made this happen on vacation, Wouter. And Alex, while you were in Malawi without too much technology, you made this happen. Thank you both for participating.
Thank you for participating in Earth Day month with me!
Wouter: Thanks a lot for the initiative, Kunthearath. We love to work with you guys. We think it’s very exciting that you’re adding more and more products all the time. That you’re so passionate leading tea ladies and a great Big Heart team behind it. It’s indeed more than a customer relationship.
Big Heart Tea Co. is a woman-owned and operated tea company based in St. Louis, MO with partners, like Satemwa, all over the world. We specialize in single-origin, organic tea that tastes amazing (we suggest a warm cup of Edith Grey) and makes the world a better place for you to drink it. All of our tea is sold in packaging that’s not meant to last so you can enjoy the flavor of our tea without asking any more of Mother Earth. Win-win, babes.