Tea, sugar, age, covid and oil: A Mauritian tea story.
If you have never visited Mauritius then you should! Sitting at the bottom and left quadrant of the Indian ocean , this slice of Africa is a melting pot of people, echoing history and living amongst lush tropical forests, volcanic mountainous scenery and a pristine coastline.
30 years ago, I was buying quite a lot of Mauritius teas . Despite their CTC manufacture, they managed a golden liquor and a sweet flavour from factories with names harking back to the island's French colonial period: La Charteuse, Dubreuil and Bois Cheri. There were others but all of these have since disappeared thanks largely to the, out of fashion, love affair that the world had with sugar, over the last century.
Tea was introduced to this lovely volcanic isle in 1760 by the French but was not industrialized for another 70 years, during the period of the British who ruled "Ile Maurice" from 1810 to 1968. Tea really took off, in the 1950's, under an initiative that gifted crown lands to 5 tea companies ( to uproot forest and plant out tea) and was further accelerated in 1962 when encouragement was given to Smallholder planters, in an effort to stem widespread unemployment. These investments coupled with access granted to colonial consumption markets made for rapid expansion of the sector and by the 1980's, over 45000MT of tea was being produced and the majority exported. All seemed rosy for this island nation and it's tea heritage but comfort does not drive innovation and while sitting on their laurels, Mauritius was left behind in the race for greater productivity, cost reduction and quality improvement (mainly from East Africa) and by the mid 1980's costs were making the sector look less and less attractive so the government turned their focus on sugar.
The government encouraged famers to rip up tea and plant sugar cane, a programme enhanced by a 10000MT sugar quota from the EU in the 1990s which resulted in the reduction of area under tea from 4000 Ha to less than 700Ha within the space of 20 years and the loss of all specialist tea bodies (Tea board and research institute).
The landscape is now one devoted to sugar, a product of declining interest and one produced much more cheaply elsewhere. The air is filled with caramel notes of burning bagasse and the incessant hum of industrial sugar harvesters, making an annoying backdrop to the wonderful natural heartlands.
But, there is hope. Not only does Mauritius have a very healthy domestic tea drinking habit (Ever tried the ubiquitous vanilla flavoured tea?) but it has a Government that understands that sugar is, sometimes, a bitter pill to swallow. As such it is considering practical options to bring back tea, a crop that is historically connected to the island but one that is fraught with complications. No one needs the plain and expensive CTC teas that the ageing factories are set up to make but they have the natural capital, in the existing tea bushes which thrive in the volcanic soils of this lush island to create something inspiring.
Some producers are already hard at it, making beautiful white teas, Oolongs and aged black teas from leaf that is variable in quality so extraordinary is possible with the right inputs.
Brick tea: Kuangfu Tea Co
Silver needle @ Bois Cheri Tea estate
Others are planting out herbal ingredients and have embarked on investments in other formats, RTDs and extracts.
However, there is a massive hurdle that is difficult to overcome and that is one of skilled labour. It exists but without any control over leaf quality and an unattractive, arduous life style, it is not sustainable. The average age of workers in the field is uncertain but over 50 (author's estimation) and mechanization is next, unless some true value addition can be brought to bear for this industry.
Smallholder Farmer: Grand Bois
As if all the hurdles of reinvigorating a tea sector (for which a market need needs building!) Mauritius is then dealt a double hammer blow. COVID 19 decimated the travel sector and with it the Mauritian tourism sector which supports a wide range of industries within the island, including tea, in the form of foodservice and retail sales as well as agro-tourism.
As if this wasn't bad enough, despite it's diminutive size, an oil tanker managed to hit a reef, off it's southern shore, spilling 40000MT of crude into it's pristine waters with the immediate death of 50 whales and dolphins.
Oilspill from MV Wakashio 7 August 2020, Mauritius
The combined difficulties faced by the Mauritian people, as a whole, plus the enormous task of reinventing themselves, as a tea producer, should not be taken lightly. However island folk, whether they be Shetlanders or Mauritians, are hardy resourceful folk and all things being equal we will see ambition deliver us teas of excellence from this jewel of the Indian ocean once again.
The author and new tea friend