Kenya: Here Comes the Purple Tea

In the expansive, lush green plantations of black tea in Murang'a, grew a young and ambitious Joyce Muturi.

But she hated the taste of tea, which she found bland, while she and her siblings also had to work on her father's five-acre tea farm in the evenings after school and during holidays as her friends went out to play.

"After school, each day we would head to our farm to cultivate, prune or harvest the tea based on seasons. We did not have any time to play with other children, and all these made me grow up hating everything to do with tea besides its taste," says Ms Muturi.

Decades later she had forgotten about the experience and immersed herself in her busy life while working in Stuttgart, Germany.

In 2016, she went for dinner at a hotel in the German city and was served with peppermint tea, which tasted totally different to one she loved to hate back home in Murangá.

"A single gulp of this tea was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. I asked myself, why is this also called tea? It was nothing like the bland, uninspiring hot drink we take each morning back home. I knew I must bring this to Kenya," she recalls.

When she came back to Kenya in 2019, she went to the Tea Directorate to ask about the local tea market. It is during this process that she first learnt of purple tea, and her interest in the novel type rapidly grew.

She then researched about purple tea and was impressed with the health benefits ascribed to the beverage by its users.

Purple Chai

Using her savings, Ms Muturi in June last year finally set up Purple Chai, a company that processes, packages and sells the brand.

Joyce Maina, a UK-based tea expert and founder and chief executive of Cambridge Tea Consultancy, told Smart Business that opportunities for this fairly new type of tea abound in most markets across the world.

Ms Maina says there are six types of tea - white, green, blue, yellow, black and dark - and that these tea types are differentiated from each other by the process in which they are made though they come from the same bush.

Purple tea is made from leaves from an entirely different tree plant.

Ms Maina says purple tea is offering something different and unique to consumers especially speciality beverage lovers, who are moving away from mainstream teas to those with new and unique tastes.

However, the tea expert says, a major drawback for purple tea, its health benefits notwithstanding, is its "herbaceous, grassy, astringent taste" which makes its unattractive even to some consumers who prioritise a diet of healthier foods.

"One thing we are yet to crack is how to make purple tea to taste in a nice way as the other types of tea which have distinctive and lovely tastes. One option that can be used to make it taste better is to blend it with some ingredients such as vanilla and hibiscus," she says.

Ms Maina says there is a ready market for purple tea especially in developed countries such as the UK and the US, provided it "tastes good" and more people know about it.

"In the UK and other rich countries, more and more people are now moving to speciality teas, a niche where purple tea sits nicely. Indeed, top supermarkets here are stocking this tea, but tea processors have a challenge to improve the taste and educate more people about it," she says.

For Ms Muturi, she sells the tea in both processed or in unoxidised forms. The unoxidised purple tea is not exposed to air but is rolled, dried and then packed. When it is unpacked and put in hot water, the full purple tea leaf spreads in the mug like it is fresh.

When you serve the tea, its colour is brown, and can barely be made apart from the usual black tea, at least until you taste it. Its taste, as Ms Maina accurately described, is nothing spectacular. What is spectacular, however, is that when you add a little drop of lemon to the tea, the colour starts to change to purple, add some more and the colour turns totally purple.

Ms Muturi sells a 50-gramme packet of processed purple tea for Sh289 while 150 grammes of rolled tea leaves sell for Sh350. For comparison, a 250-gramme packet of loose packed black tea retails at an average of Sh100.

The processor sources her produce from purple tea growers in Murang'a and neighbouring countries and reckons that she has a steady supply of the raw material to support her ambition to be an exporter of the commodity especially in South Korea, who are big consumers of the tea, the UK and European Union countries.

Purple tea sellers

She is also in talks with top retail giants such as Naivas, Chandarana and Zucchini to stock her product, while she is also targeting small retailers to serve the common consumer who she says are "neglected" by purple tea sellers.

"I have enough raw material to launch my product in top exports markets especially South Korea and Europe who are huge consumers of tea. But a big challenge small tea processors are facing is a lack of funding to expand our operations and mechanise. When I was starting out last year, no bank was willing to offer me credit," Ms Muturi said.

Trade Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina told Smart Business on the sidelines of the Kenya-UK Mini Trade Exhibition on Friday that lenders are open to giving credit facilities to businesses as long as they have a sound bear idea and clear strategy.

Ms Maina said the Kenya-UK Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) provides both small-scale tea processors such as Ms Muturi and seasoned ones access to ready market in the UK.

"If you can demonstrate that your business can achieve results, funding becomes easier to obtain from lenders and investors. This is why our pact with the UK offers businesses an opportunity to scale up and get access to the ready and mature UK market," CS Maina said.

Kenya is already the world's largest exporter of black tea and earned Sh120 billion from exports last year alone, according to data from the Tea Directorate.

The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK), now the Tea Research Institute (TRI) which is under the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), selectively bred tea varieties of varied and desirable qualities to make the purple tea cultivar, officially ascribed the title TRFK 306, in 2011.

The tea plant is resistant to drought, frost, pests and diseases, while its leaves are purple due to the heavy presence of the purple-coloured compound anthocyanin.

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