Before embarking on a tour of Shagasha tea estate, found in Rusizi District’s Giheke Sector, I was briefed by Azarias Niyibizi. Azarias serves as the production manager. His briefing was followed by a detailed account of Shagasha Tea Company’s (STC’s) background.
Shortly after my encounter with Azarias, I was introduced to a young lady who prefers to be referred to as Sophie. Sophie ushered me to the nursery outside the factory. What followed was a crash course on the technical aspects of germinating seeds and nurturing the sprouting tender trees. If I was taught this stuff in a classroom setting, it would have sounded like rocket science but her teaching methodology made the highly technical subject easy to digest.
My next move was to roll up my sleeves and participate in the tea plucking exercise. This experiment took place in the surrounding fields owned by the cooperatives contracted to supply green leaves to the factory.
Many plantation workers were plucking tea manually. A small group was carrying out a less labor-intensive mechanical harvesting. I was taught how to identify the right leaves to be picked. A mature tree has an unfurled bud with two or three off shoots. I used my index finger and thumb to snap one leaf after another under a watchful eye of my supervisor.
When I returned to the factory, I saw trucks delivering green leaves from different collection centers. At the delivery point, leaves are weighed, graded and registered.
There was another briefing before I entered the factory. This time, I was given a code of conduct which, among other things, prohibited taking photos inside the factory. I was also instructed to wear a white laboratory coat and step on the germ-killing liquid concoction at the entrance.
The first step in tea processing is removal of excess moisture. This task is known as withering. Humidity content of green leaves is reduced by 30% or so. This is done by spreading out fresh leaves on ventilated troughs. From there, the leaves are placed on a magnetic conveyor belt designed to extract ferromagnetic materials. In other words, excess water is sucked out of the leaves and metallic particles, if any, are removed and trashed.
When moisture content is lowered, the leaves are rolled for about thirty minutes. STC uses a rolling method known as Crushing, Tearing and Curling (CTC). In this case, the leaves spin on rollers fitted with sharp teeth that crush, tear and curl them into small pellets.
All types of tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Classification depends on the degree of fermentation. The oxidized polyphenolic compounds formed during the process of fermentation determine the color, flavor, taste and aroma of the final product. After this stage, tea leaves are dried and packaged.
Processing tea is a complex operation. Since I had limited time, my tour was tailored around four major stages: harvesting, withering, oxidation and drying. Learning in a practical way made me acquainted with details I wouldn’t be able to comprehend in a classroom.