Tea is believed to be the most popular beverage in the world after plain water, and Rwanda is among the top countries in the region with premium tea, which generates millions of dollars every year for the country.
However, a few know the process of farm-to-cup and the resilience of farmers who every day make it possible for the whole world to access that beverage.
When Perasie Uwamariya, 42, first engaged in tea farming in 2010 she did not think much of it as income generating activity that her family would exclusively depend on.
“I only knew it would be like any other farming activity that would give me a few pennies to survive,” she says as she points to her expansive plantation.
The resident of Rutsiro says two years into it she realized that there was a possibility to turn tea farming into greater fortunes.
There are 45,520 farmers engaged in tea across Rwanda who value of exports is estimated at $92.4 million. File.
“At first I had 45 acres of land, growing a limited number of tea trees and not making much from it – about 50 kilogrammes per month,” she recalls.
Few years down the road, Uwamariya grows tea on two hectares of expansive tea farm in the rolling hills of the Western Province.
“Today, I am able to harvest somewhere around 800 kilogrammes of tea leaves per month. That’s enough to earn me a good living,” she notes.
Uwamariya is one of the thousands of tea growers in the Western Province that have seen a great deal in one of the most popular plants in Rwanda.
She’s one of the farmers working under Rutsiro Tea Growers Cooperative (RUTEGROC), which comprises more than 2,000 farmers.
The cooperative conducts tea farming in six sectors of Rutsiro District with a total industrial block of 500 hectares.
“People have understood the value of tea farming,” Gaspard Hungurimana, the President of the Cooperative, says.
“When we started, we were growing on less than 250 hectares with a production of only 19,045 kilos per month,” he adds.
Last year alone, they were harvesting 120 tonnes of tea leaves per month. This year, the cooperative harvests up to 149 tonnes per month.
“The same year, we were able to supply at least 1,040,591 million kilos of tea leaves to Rwanda Mountain Tea,” Hungurimana explains.
Few hours away from RUTEGROC sits another cooperative in Karongi District, which has been involved in tea farming since 2012.
Joseph Mbonabucya, another farmer from Mutuntu Sector in Karongi District, believes tea is an economically viable plant that many Rwandans have found an opportunity to tap.
“I am able to pay for school fees for my children and feed them. My elder son has just finished university. This wouldn’t have been the case if it wasn’t for tea growing,” he notes.
Mbonabucya, who currently supplies between 1 to 2 tons of tea leaves per month, is hopeful that five years from now, the tea business will never be the same.
“I promise you if you come back three to five years here, you will find the entire community reaping big from the tea business.” he tells me.
His cooperative, Karongi Tea Cooperative Growers, has more than 1,000 members, growing tea on 530 hectares.
Stories like those of Mbonabucya and Uwamariya rarely appear when we mention Rwanda’s tea business, despite being key in the tea value chain.
As of June this year, Rwanda exported to the international market 32.3 million kilos of tea, from 30.5 million kilos exported during the period last year.
That is a 5.8 per cent increase, thanks to the resilience of farmers who worked hard to increase production by 11.27 per cent.
The value of exports grew from $83.5 million (Rwf80.7 billion) to $92.4 million (Rwf89.3 billion), an increase of 10.6 percent despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
The presence of factories in close proximity to farmers now means that farmers do not have to wait longer before their producer gets to the market.
For instance, before Gatare Tea Factory in Nyamasheke District started processing tea two years ago, farmers were taking their produce to Gisovu in Karongi, a journey of many hours.
The factory, part of Rwanda Mountain Tea, gets 90 per cent of their tea leaves from one cooperative that operates in Nyamasheke, according to Emile Mukiza, the factory Director General.
“That has enabled us to reach one-third of our production capacity. Last year, we received 8 tons of green leaf from farmers and exported 1.6 tons of black tea,” he says.
The target for this year, he adds, is to export 2.2 tons of black tea to the international market.
Rwanda tea is currently known to have high quality team competing favourabley across the region attracting a premium price from buyers at the auction.
Last year, tea processed by Nyabihu Tea Factory sold at a record price of $7.22 per kilogramme, the highest price in the history of the Mombasa trading where a dozen producers from the region sell their tea.
Farmers, however, say poor road infrastructure, hampers the transport of produce from farms to factories in some areas.
“It takes at least 3 hours transporting produce from one of the furthest areas to the factory. If we had a reliable road, it would take at least 20 minutes,” Hungurimana says.
Lack of enough fertilizer is another key challenge that farmers highlight, asking the government to step in to facilitate them.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) have been working to address transportation issues and post-harvest losses.
Yet, farmers – there are 45,520 farmers engaged in tea across Rwanda – believe more efforts should be dedicated to addressing issues surrounding tea farming if Rwanda is to reap more from the tea business.Follow https://twitter.com/Julio_Bizimungu