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The Point Foundation & Hallmark Vending

Tracing Leaf to Tea to Cup in Rwanda

Pfunda Tea Factory – The first stage


Rwanda is a truly astonishing country with the most amazing and quite stunning landscape. The country is so clean and the people so friendly that you easily forget how much turmoil the country was in just a few years ago. Today, while still extremely poor, the people are very proud, extremely hard working and hospitable. They also produce some of the world’s greatest tea as we shall see from our visit to the Pfunda tea factory. Situated about 4 hours drive from the capital Kigali, the northern part of the estate borders Congo, which today has its own problems and is the midst of civil war.

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Congo over Lake Kivu

 

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Pfunda Tea Factory

On entering the tea factory by the security gate, you are welcomed by a smart unformed guard saluting you. You immediately notice how well organised, clean and tidy the site is with white lined trees, immaculate edges, freshly cut grass and wonderfully colourful flower beds, all neatly arranged around a large number of “mother” tea bushes. The whole complex is vastly different from when it was taken over back in November 2004 from being Government controlled to Imporient ownership. Around 150 people are employed on site working 8 hour shifts day and night.

 

In the last two and a half years over a million US$ have been invested in the plant and the difference has been immeasurable in providing not only a superb factory capable of seriously increasing green leaf production, but also introducing new employment and improved infrastructure to the area and bringing well being into the local community. Workers children now live in a secure community with a roof over their heads in place of make shift tents. School is now provided although at a cost

 

Charles_Trace_with_Employees_Children
Charles Trace with Employees Children

Each afternoon the green leaf is brought into the factory from the fields where it has been freshly plucked that morning. The actual tea estate covers a huge area almost 40 kilometres in length and 20 kilometres wide. Millions of tea bushes are carefully cultivated and each one is plucked every 8 to 9 days. The bushes themselves are beautifully manicured through the correct hand plucking of the leaf, bud and tender stem. After each picking the leaves are carefully carried to a weighing station where the morning’s collection is weighed and recorded so that payment can be made.

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Green Leaf Tea

 

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The “Perfect Pick” – P+2 = 2 leaf and 1 bud

 

Quality is absolutely paramount and each sector has a specialist inspector called an Agronomist who checks each area of plantation as well as the picked leaves. Each of the 9 sectors is run by a Cooperative, all working together, to gather as high a quality and volume of leaf. Each plucker is paid an incentive for gathering the best leaf. The aim of the inspectors is to ensure that at least 70% of the plucked leaf meets the top grade of P+2. Pfunda achieves this status regularly with the average tea plantation only gaining around 60% of the top grade. The 5 Cooperatives support around 2500 families living in the area, and is one of the biggest employers in the region.

 

Lorries arrive at the factory around 11am packed high with the green leaf in the collection sacks used by the tea plucker’s where each load is meticulously weighed and recorded. A quality inspector checks each sack again before it goes onto to the mono rail that take the bags up to the withering troughs. Here the leaf is hand rolled into huge troughs where over a period of 16 to 18 hours the moisture content of the leaf is reduced by 30%. This is done by fanning air through the base of the trough, (under the mesh on which the green leaf rests). Once the quality inspector (Tea Maker - Ernest) is satisfied, the trough is emptied and the leaves taken down by conveyor to the cutting rooms.

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Tea Weighing Station

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The Start of the Factory Process

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Withering the Fresh Tea in huge troughs that are dried by air

 

Once again quality is paramount and prior to passing through the CTC machines the Leaves are first passed through a ‘sifter’ that removes any foreign objects such as stones/gravel from the tea leaves, before they enter the 4 CTC (cut, tear and curl) machines. The Pfunda tea factory is unique in that, unlike other tea producers in Rwanda who only use three cuts, Pfunda uses 4 cuts during the CTC (cut, tear and curl) process. This enables a more gentle cut to be made at each stage whilst also ensuring a far superior quality cut is obtained before the leaf moves to the fermentation stage.

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Cut, Tear, Curl Machine in full flow

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Fermentation Process

The complexity of tea making becomes very apparent and it depends very heavily on the weather conditions as to how long the fermentation process takes and how much air is used to cool the oxidising leaf. This “push pull” process, as it is called, allows the air to turn the finely cut leaf from bright green to a bright golden brown. Once this process is complete the fermented/oxidised leaves go through a ‘ball breaker’ that removes any lumps before the leaf enters the dryer, (which is heated between 145 and 155 degrees). This is done to arrest the oxidation process and ensure the quality is captured in a way that allows it to be kept for a reasonable period of time. At this point the tea is now black in appearance and referred to as ‘made tea’. As it leaves the dryer this ‘Made Tea’ is at it’s very best and will only deteriorate over time. It is therefore important to get this made tea to market and into the consumer’ cup as soon as possible.

The warm air radiators and the dryers are all heated by steam, generated by a huge wood boiler. This consumes vast quantities of Eucalyptus, which is the best natural and sustainable material, as it is grown locally on the estate especially for the process. Eucalyptus is an extremely fast growing tree with a tree being mature in only six years. As a general rule 1 hectare of Eucalyptus forest is needed to ensure there is enough wood produced to fuel the boiler and meet the steam requirements needed to process the leaf that will be harvested from 3 hectares of tea, and therefore both are grown side by side,

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Wood Boiler burning large quantities of Eucalyptus

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David Graham – Chairman of Imporient checking the Roasted Tea

After drying the richly coloured and fragrant leaf (known as dryer mouth tea) is sorted into different sized grades. Sorting machines also ensure that any stalk or tea dust is removed from the ‘dryer mouth’ tea. This ‘cleaning’ process makes sure that the tea is now of the highest quality in terms of taste, texture and aroma.

Grades are accumulated and then packed –packed tea of the same production run / grade are numbered and are then collectively called an ‘invoice’ of tea. An invoice of tea is typically made up of 40 sacks of 68+/- kilos of tea. The final graded tea is put through special hoppers and into special four ply alufoil lined sacks that are used to transport the tea to the Mombasa warehouse for onward delivery to clients. It is vital that the whole “invoice” tastes the same. Quality control samples are taken for checking at each stage of the packing process once the “invoice” is complete the sacks are hand stacked in groups of 20 (per pallet) ready for shipping. There are no Fork lifts used in the factory.

Tea_Sifting
Tea Sifting

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Tea Grading

All tea is transported in air tight and securely locked containers to Mombassa – a 10 day journey from Rwanda through Uganda and Kenya to this busy sea port where the Imporient warehouse is located.

It takes years to build a reputation but all this can be lost in one day if an “invoice” goes wrong, so at the final grading stage the teas are taken into the tasting and quality control room. Here they are fully tasted and marked by highly trained specialist tea tasters. What is incredible is that the factory is absolutely spotless. During the whole process from field to sack, there can be no smells, bacteria or any type of foreign matter in the factory as this can immediately ruin the whole days production. At the end of every shift, all the withering troughs, cutting machines, and fermenting trolleys are washed out, cleaned and then made ready for the next shift.

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No Fork Lift – 65kg Weight

 

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Tea Tasting – every batch personally tasted

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Loading the Tea – By Hand in readiness for 10 day journey to Mombassa

 

 

The Pfunda tea factory is totally self sufficient with repair shops and maintenance gangs - every conceivable piece of machinery is maintained on site and where required rebuilt within their own workshops. In order to ensure that the cutting process is maintained at the highest level, each of the CTC rollers are removed and go through a 5 hour re-sharpening process to keep the blades in first class condition.

Eucalyptus_Store_1_hectare_of_wood_to_3_hectares_of_tea_produced Eucalyptus Store – 1 hectare of wood to 3 hectares of tea produced

 

The Pfunda tea factory has made a major impact on the local community since it was taken over in 2004. The buildings were in a poor state of repair and many of the workers lived in make shift tents that lined the entrance to the factory. There was hardly any sanitisation or toilets. Today huge investment has gone into rebuilding the site, installing new machinery and over the next few days a new wood fuelled boiler is to be installed that significantly improves the efficiency of heating as well as being more environmentally friendly.

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New Toilet Block – an exceptional investment for the workers on site

 

Employees_Housing_roofs_now__replaces_tents Employees Housing – roofs now replaces tents

The make shift tents have long gone and now staff housing is being renovated as well as the surrounding area that will eventually see open spaces created for vegetable patches, gardens and a children’s play park. The old canteen is being re-furbished to guest quarters and unbelievably for this area, a basketball pitch has been created to provide some after work leisure activities.

 

A brand new toilet block has been opened for men and women with hot showers available – the heating of which comes from their own power generated by the factory boiler on site. The staff are so proud of their new facilities and the block is kept immaculate by an site team.

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Men’s Toilets – replaces holes in the ground

 

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Surrounding Gardens with mother tea bushes

 

Travelling to the Mombassa office from Pfunda takes a full day with a four hour drive to Kigali and then flights to Nairobi and onward to Mombassa. This busy port is still home to the Kenyan tea and coffee trade with warehousing, tasting and the auction houses.

Imporient’s offices are sited across a busy street from the warehouse. They contain not only all the administration teams and the shipping clerks but also the tasting rooms where upwards of 300 different blends of tea are tasted each day.

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L.A.B. – Imporient Offices

 

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Tea Tipping and blending – called “Over the shoulder”

 

The massive warehouse stores all the teas waiting to be exported to countries as far a field as the UK, Egypt, Russia, Pakistan and the middle east. Apart from storage the warehouse also provides cover for the blending of the various teas that go into the various brands. Each day, teams of men blend the tea by hand. Around 20 tons of tea are “tipped” onto the floor and some 20 men shovel the tea into a huge cone shape and then back into a huge circle. This “tipping” process may be repeated several times and the air is thick with the tea dust and wonderful fragrances. Blending by hand has been done for centuries and continues to this day because blending by machine simply does not get the same quality results.

 

Once fully blended the tea is sent through one final sieving machine to ensure absolutely no stalks or other impurities are mixed in and then it goes into large hoppers ready for packing and sealing.

At all stages quality control inspectors are measuring standards and quality and texture. “Masai” is the quality inspector and as he has proved himself as a Masai warrior by killing a lion with a spear – nobody dares argue with him!!!

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Masai – Quality Control with menace!

Quality control still doesn’t stop here at the factory. Once the goods are fully packed and delivered into the port, the whole consignment undergoes final random testing at the Ports Authority Public Health department before finally being loaded on route for the UK and Imporients distribution centres.

The whole process from picking of leaf to delivery, is around a month ensuring true freshness. Other tea producers average 3 months from picking to final destination.

Packing_Tea_with_Daniel_Graham_of_Imporient_prior_to_shipment_to_UK
Packing Tea with Daniel Graham of Imporient prior to shipment to UK

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