KIAMBETHU, Nairobi, Kenya
The African tea trade as we know it, was started by one little known family in Kenya – the McDonells. Without them, Kenya may never have become the biggest exporter of tea in the world and breakfast tea would not have the richness of colour and flavour that we now know. Their story shows not only the importance of tea to families, but also the importance of a family to tea.
Given the role that African tea plays in many famous black tea blends, it is surprising that tea didn’t reach Africa until the 20th century. The first tea bushes were planted in Kenya in 1903, simply for ornamental purposes by G.W.L. Caine. Caine, like so many others, failed to see the opportunity to grow tea commercially in Africa. It was several decades that an inventive Scot saw the agricultural potential of the camellia leaf.
Arnold Butler McDonell, better known as AB, purchased 350 acres from the British government in 1904, moving to Kenya to establish his own farm – Kiambethu, 20 miles from Nairobi. He had dreams of growing crops on the lush land, but at 7,200ft all the crops that he tried to grow, failed. Coffee, corn and flax were all wilted, and his dream of farming seemed to be becoming a living nightmare.
After more than ten years of disappointment, however, a friend visited AB from India, bringing a few tea samplings of Camellia Sinensis assamica with him as a gift. With nothing to lose, AB immediately took the opportunity and decided to experiment with the plant on his land holding. He planted 20 acres in 1918 and to his delight the bushes thrived. In 1926 he became the first commercial tea producer in the history of Africa, establishing an industry that today is worth more than $1 billion.
As the initial tea maverick of Kenya, AB’s early years of tea production were spent trying to establish the ways and means to produce and sell his tea. With no tea factory in the area, McDonell was forced to process all of the tea on the farm itself, transporting it personally by train to Nairobi’s Bazaar Street, where he sold his finished product directly to traders.
His success in producing and processing the world’s first African tea was accompanied by the development of a burgeoning family. His four daughters were born on the Kiambethu farm and when it came time to educate them, AB built a girl’s school 100 metres from the farm gate for their needs. His daughter, Evelyn Mitchell, hated being forced to board at the school, but later told her own daughter that she found comfort in being able to see her bedroom windows from the class room. The school still stands today, along with All Saints Church, Limuru which AB also designed and built.
AB lived to be 98 and never left Kiambethu. It was his daughter, Evelyn, who took over the farm after his retirement and introduced guided tours for tourists in the 1960s. She in turn, passed the farm onto her daughter, Fiona Vernon, who had insisted in her youth that she would never run tea tours. Luckily for African tea lovers, when Fiona’s mother sadly passed away in 1998, she was left with a pre-booking for a group and she was forced to guide the tour. The rest, as they say, is history…
This pioneering family started the Kenyan tea industry, and their passion has created a unique farm that still produces tea to this day. Whilst the family have sold most of the original 350 acres, 35 remain with them and 2 acres are devoted to tea. More importantly, Fiona continues to share the knowledge that has been passed down through the generations to all tea lovers who visit Kiambethu, and the legacy of her grandfather remains.
To learn more or arrange a trip to Kiambethu tea farm, please visit http://www.kiambethufarm.co.ke/