Sometimes an opportunity comes along that is too good to be true and you have to pinch yourself to check you are not dreaming: an invitation to travel to Rwanda to visit tea plantations, coffee farms and charity centres that support and empower thousands of Rwandan women and children. This was our Extraordinary Journey.
An Extraordinary Journey
It all began in the summer of 2017 when Taylors of Harrogate – a tea and coffee company and family business from Yorkshire – asked me to take part in the Extraordinary Journey campaign with Creating for Good. I’ve talked about it many times on my blog and my Instagram, so you may be familiar with it by now.
Over the course of 18 months, I attended a series of workshops organised by Taylors and CFG, focused on developing creative skills and learning about premium tea and speciality coffee. I learnt how to create cinemagraphs and how to cook with spices and coffee; I learnt about video-editing and the power of storytelling.
For the last leg of our Extraordinary Journey we travelled to Rwanda, where Taylors source the country’s best teas and coffees to use in their blends and single origins.
I mentally prepared for this trip for two years, but nothing could have truly prepared me for the beauty and awe I experienced over there.
Through this partnership, we raised £12,000 which Taylors donated to Creating for Good’s chosen charity: Women for Women International. Rwanda is one of eight world countries they operate in.
Women for Women is an incredible charity serving hundreds of thousands of marginalised and socially excluded women survivors of war. Through year-long programmes, the charity provides them with the tools to help them choose their own future and rebuild their lives.
Since 1997, the charity has served more than 77,000 Rwandan women by providing skills workshops in everything from agriculture and tailoring to bookkeeping and cooking.
Anyone can “sponsor a sister” with a donation of £22 per month which will pay for one woman to attend the Women for Women training programme for a year. Find out more about how you can help here.
Rwanda is often called the “land of a thousand hills” because of its mountainous landscape and stunning scenery with endless lush rainforests, volcanoes and lakes. More tourists than ever are choosing Rwanda as a holiday destination, attracted by the country’s incredible wildlife: chimpanzees, golden monkeys, brightly-coloured birds, orchids and butterflies and, of course, gorillas which you get to see in their natural habitat.
Rwandans are friendly people too! Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with open arms, huge smiles and heartfelt laughs, and sometimes also dancing and signing! Rwandan people showed us their love and we will all treasure those memories forever.
Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and a city of over one million people, is one of Africa’s rising cities. The United Nations declared Kigali the most beautiful city in Africa and the third greenest city in the world!
I only spent four days in this city and my impression was that it is very clean, organised, serene and liveable. My favourite Kigali discoveries were: Question Coffee, the Women’s Bakery and Nyamirambo Women’s Centre; for restaurants, I recommend Habesha, Heaven and The Hut.
Rwanda was ranked the 9th safest country in the world by the World Economic Forum. I felt really safe at all times, though naturally I can only speak for my own experience of visiting Kigali for a few days.
Kigali Genocide Memorial
It is impossible to forget Rwanda’s genocide against the Tutsi which took place in 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War. In just 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered. The Rwandan genocide deprived the country of decades of development, destroyed infrastructure and crippled essential services. Yet the country was able to overcome its harrowing past and is now successfully rebuilding itself.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a place of remembrance and learning. It is the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the genocide.
Inside the building, there is a museum showing photos from the genocide and its aftermath. Outside, in the garden, there is a long granite wall engraved with the names of 20,000 victims.
The guided tours really help you understand better what happened during and after the genocide. Yes, it was an intense experience, but it was also needed – for us to understand a little bit better the country and the people we were about to visit and meet.
Sorwathe Tea Factory and Estate
After a few days in Kigali, we travelled to the north of Rwanda to visit the Sorwathe Tea Factory and Estate.
The drive out of the city and through the country was beautiful: green hills, red sand roads, blue skies and brightly coloured brick buildings. Everywhere: men and women and children walking on the side of the roads – smiling and waving at us as we passed.
We arrived at the estate in time for a delicious lunch on the terrace overlooking a beautiful and lush valley.
Sorwathe is located 2-3 hours’ drive from Kigali (depending on traffic getting out of the city). They organise private tours of the factory and estate so anyone can book them; there is also a 10-room guesthouse, where we spent the night.
The next day we woke up very early to watch the sun come up through the morning mist. I walked through tea plants; I watched the people living around the estate walk to the nearby factory and the children starting their long walk to school; I breathed the fresh morning air and took tons of photos of the sunrise. It was beautiful!
The Tea Factory
Sorwathe was officially opened in 1975: the first private tea estate in Rwanda. It was founded by Joe Wertheim of Tea Importers (a US-based trader of African teas); the company is now run by Joe’s son Andrew. Over the decades, it has created over 3,000 employment opportunities for the community around Kinihira.
It’s hard to believe that tea didn’t even use to grow here before the Seventies. There was very little arable land available on the hill sides to grow tea, so Wertheim worked with the Rwandan government to secure financing, reclaim swamp land, build infrastructures, bring water and electricity to the area.
And now there are over 1,000 hectares of land on which tea is grown on around Kinihira (the Sorwathe owns 296 hectares).
Today, Sorwathe is the number one tea brand within Rwanda. It produces approximately 12% of Rwanda’s tea.
15 million kilograms of green leaves are plucked every year and processed at the factory in Sorwathe. The fresh green leaves go through five stages of processing: sorting, analysis, withering, fermentation and drying / firing.
Approximately 3 million kilograms of high quality black, green, oolong, organic and specialty teas are produced and sold around the world. Taylors of Harrogate have been buying tea from Sorwathe since 2001 for their Yorkshire Tea, English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast blends.
During our tour, we watched as fresh tea leaves are processed through different stages of production. The factory uses tea grown from the Sorwathe plantation and also from the Assopthe plantation, a Rwandan cooperative that represents over 3,500 small farmers.
We were guided through one of the plantations in the early morning when tea pluckers are at work. I had watched tea plucking before in Kerala, India but at the time nobody had explained to me how this is done. In Rwanda, I learnt that tea plucking is a highly-skilled job that requires around three years of training.
Tea can be harvested by hand or by machine, but as you can imagine, plucking by hand is the best way to preserve the tea’s flavour properties and aromas.
Only the younger leaves at the top are plucked at any time; most of the plant remains intact to grow new fresh buds. A long wooden stick is used to mark the dividing line between older leaves and fresh ones.
2,500 people work in these plantations every day, all year round, rain or shine. They hold one branch and gently break off the tea bud with one or two leaves around it.
Taylors community projects
Taylors’ approach to sourcing is based on partnership and mutual respect. They don’t just buy from tea and coffee suppliers; they build long term relationships by investing part of their profits in the local community and in environmental projects that make a difference to their lives.
Sorwathe has built pre-schools around its factory to serve the young children in its community and Taylors have been working alongside them in several projects since 2014.
Initially starting with farmer field schools, Taylors have supported bringing water and cricket to tea farming communities, providing porridge to school children and sanitary pads for school girls.
The Days for Girls Kits contain re-usable absorbent liners. They are created by Days for Girls, an international charity working to change the status quo through quality menstrual care solutions and menstrual health education to give back to young women days of opportunity and health. Today, Days for Girls has reached more than one million women and girls in 125+ countries.
We were there when the school teachers handed out period kits to the girls. It nearly brought me to tears realising how something I have always taken for granted – ie. the ability to buy sanitary pads when I need them – is not available to everyone. Something as simple as sanitary pads can have huge positive effects on the lives of a young girls in Africa.
Sorwathe (with the support of Taylors) are also helping tackle chronic malnutrition among young kids. The Porridge Project provides one cup of nutritious porridge to each of the children attending the pre-schools in Kinihira. The porridge is made with oats and added vitamin and minerals, then it is mixed with water.
For some of these kids, the cup of porridge is often breakfast AND lunch. Also, when parents can’t afford to provide meals for their children, they are more likely to keep them at home and not send them to school – often out of shame.
Between 2015 and 2018 we donated £21,000 to the initiative, which is now serving porridge to 900 children, improving attendance and energy for learning.
I left Sorwathe with our hearts full and with a new appreciation of the hard work that goes my daily cup of tea! Our next stop was Lake Kivu in Rwanda’s Western province to visit Kopakama coffee farm (where Taylors sources beans for their Agaseke and Beautiful Tomorrow Ejo Heza coffees). I will write a blog post about our visit there soon!
Over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure to learn more about Taylors of Harrogate. To drink copious amounts of their fantastic teas and coffees. To meet some of the honest, funny, beautiful people who work for this company in Yorkshire. It was a dream collaboration for me! In particular, it was wonderful to learn about Taylors of Harrogate’s commitment to improving the lives of their suppliers. They don’t shout about it as much as they could, but their charitable work is truly amazing: projects aimed at improving productivity, quality and agricultural practices; tree-planting; educational projects, scholarships and health projects; and many more in Rwanda and in many other countries like Uganda, Peru and Kenya.
I will be forever grateful to Taylors of Harrogate for giving me this opportunity. Most of all, I thank Taylors for choosing the best possible travel companions for our Extraordinary Journey: Jo (@candidsbyjo), Hannah (@hannahargyle) and Rosie (@rosiefoodie); from Creating for Good: Jess (@jessonthames) and Charlotte (@charlottehuco); and finally Jessica (@belleannee) and Laura (@circleofpines) who unfortunately couldn’t travel to Rwanda with us.
Disclaimer: this post was published as part of a paid partnership with Taylors. All opinions are my own.