Forty years ago, Joseph Wertheim, founder of Connecticut-based Tea Importers, built the first private tea factory in Rwanda. This month his son, Andrew, dedicated that country’s largest green tea factory, a modern $1.1 million operation producing organic tea.
The factory’s initial capacity is 300,000 kilograms per year with most destined for export. The company also produces orthodox (whole leaf tea), white tea, and black teas for to the U.S., U.K., Canada, Ireland, South Africa, Japan, China, Pakistan, and France.
Tea generated around $88 million last year with a value that is expected to increase to $92 million in 2018, making it Rwanda’s most valuable export. Tea is currently grown by 42,840 farmers on 66,500 acres (26,897 hectares) across 12 districts.
Production capacity of the new plant could help the company earn about $1.2 million based on a price of around $4 per kilogram (about Rwf3,498.6). Sorwathe, with 700 acres (296 hectares) under tea and 525 hectares of forest, is the largest tea estate in Rwanda, processing 3.5 million kilograms annually, about 15 percent of the country’s total.
Joe Wertheim first visited Rwanda in the 1960s during regular buying trips where it was common to fly into remote areas by small plane. He liked what he saw and in 1965 helped secure U.S. funding to plant 16 hectares of tea in the Hiruri swamp. The tea first came to market in 1968. In 1972 Rwanda’s minister of commerce asked Wertheim to establish a factory in Cyohoha. The surrounding land became Sorwathe with a factory completed in 1975.
Rohith Peiris, Sorwathe’s director general said “Green tea is something that is being thought about all over the world because of its health benefits. We embarked on this because buyers have been asking for this tea for quite some time.” His comments were reported by the New Times, a local newspaper.
At the dedication Andrew Wertheim said, “When my father, Joe Wertheim, started Sorwathe in 1975, his vision was to improve the lives of people in surrounding communities through tea. To achieve this goal, we want Sorwathe to be the most innovative tea factory in Rwanda.”
That dream has come to pass. Sorwathe is not only the largest factory in Rwanda, it is the most innovative. It was here that Rwandan growers first began using fluid bed driers, invertors, stalk extractors. The estate was the first to grow certified organic tea. Sorwathe averages 14 metric tons per acre and is teaching farmers to increase their yield which averages less than 10 tons per hectare.
Wertheim said his company is investing in the production of orthodox tea, tea bags and packaged tea for retail.
During the ceremony Northern Province Governor Jean Marie Vianney Gatabazi praised the Wertheim family for promoting “a spirit of community through tea farming, which has contributed significantly to the transformation of many of your lives. I want to urge you to get more involved in tea farming because we have seen its value.”
Local growers share in proceeds from the factory which employs 4,000 and buys tea from the Assopthe Tea Cooperative comprised of 5,000 nearby villagers farming 2,225 acres (900 ha). Assopthe is the first tea cooperative to receive shares from factory profits, according to a case study published by Fairtrade Africa.
Rwanda produced less than 14,500 metric tons of tea in 2000, a total that increased to 25,128 tons in 2017.