Emerald Kahangi Estate

FORT PORTAL, Western Uganda

The emerald hills of Kahangi Estate stretch for 200 acres beneath Uganda’s mist-shrouded Rwenzori Mountains. This modest tea garden in western Uganda has born witness to over a century of turmoil in the land-locked East African country. But not only has the Kahangi Estate survived, its management has been courageous enough to try something completely unique in Uganda: producing top-quality, completely organic tea.

Kahangi EstateThe roots of the Kahangi Estate are aristocratic. Originally established in 1916, the estate produced coffee until the early 1930s, when the American Countess Stead traveled down the Nile to Fort Portal to purchase the land. She and her descendants grew tea until 1972, when the estate was confiscated by the notorious Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. The old house and tea garden languished for decades before being revived in 2000. Six years later, Kahangi – which also produces coffee, soaps and skin care products – was growing 100% organic tea.

Organic cultivation has been good for business as well as the environment, keeping the plants healthy during dry spells, says owner Alan Tulip. “You really start to develop a good soil structure. This means that when it does rain, your soil absorbs the water, and during the dry times it’s really able to hold onto it,” he says. Tulip weeds by hand and plants trees between his bushes, creating a network of roots that enriches the soil.

The processing at Kahangi Estate is unusual as well, particularly in East Africa. While the estate’s black tea – the bulk of the leaf picked – is processed in conventional factories, the green tea gets special treatment. “We’re using the traditional Chinese method of doing it,” says Tulip, who visited small-scale tea farmers in China to learn their secrets. “With traditional Chinese tea, the leaves are actually rolled. When you put them into the water they initially float, then they sink down and start to unfurl,” he explains, adding that his estate is the only one in East Africa producing Chinese-style green tea.

Such inventiveness may have been a gamble for such a small estate, but for Kahangi Estate, it has paid off in profitability. The organic green tea sells in Uganda for around $3.30 per 100g, around ten times the price of conventional black teas. The money saved in fertilizer goes into wages, with pickers here earning significantly more than at nearby estates.

Kahangi sits at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet, and its bushes are an eclectic mix – some date back to the 1930s, says Tulip, while others are the broad-leafed variety grown in China. Although the estate’s black tea is exported around the world through Mombasa, Kenya, the green tea is only being produced so far for the local market. But this market, says Tulip, is surprisingly robust. “In Africa, people have a soft spot for the whole concept of natural things.”

2012 Harvest Report

The Fort Portal area has two rainy seasons, and Kahangi’s best flushes generally appear in April and October, just before the rains begin to fall. But as owner Alan Tulip points out, no two seasons are the same, a fact noted by even the earliest growers in the area. This year, tea production has slumped throughout the region, after low rainfall and a dryer dry season than normal. Prices are up as a result, both in Mombasa and on the local market.