Tanzania: How this company built a premium tea brand that is exported globally

Tahira Nizari (middle), managing director of Kazi Yetu, at a tea farm in Tanzania.

In January 2016, Canadian-born Tahira Nizari moved to Tanzania, the country where her mother grew up, on a work assignment for the Aga Khan Foundation.

Standing in front of the grocery shelves in her new hometown, Dar es Salaam, Nizari could not find one organic tea produced in Tanzania. “I love tea and while I could find a decent imported range, there weren’t really any local options. I realised a lot of the high-quality, local tea is exported before any value-addition,” she says.

The gap in the market was evident but the idea brewed for two years before she took the leap into entrepreneurship. In 2018, along with co-founder Hendrik Buermann, she registered the business Kazi Yetu. The name means ‘our work’ in Swahili and the company aims to bring quality African products to the international market after local value-addition. “We want to transform the way African products are traded,” adds Nizari.

Their first product in the market is a range of fair trade, organic and quality blended teas under the brand name Tanzania Tea Collection. It is sold locally, mainly to the hospitality industry, as well as exported to Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia.

Market research

Nizari’s work with the Aga Khan Foundation was to design, co-ordinate and implement economic inclusion projects aimed at improving the livelihoods of farmers, developing value chains and creating jobs in rural areas. This provided her with unique insight into the agricultural industry in Tanzania.

The first four months were spent doing market research on the international demand and preferences for tea, as well as the supply chain in Tanzania.

Nizari visited different export target markets – once again standing in front of the supermarket shelves – to get a sense of the competition and different pricing points. She wanted to understand what consumers were responding to in terms of product range and branding.

Then she returned to Tanzania, travelling across the country to visit the farms from which the company could potentially source its teas, as well as the herbs and spices that would be used to create the tea blends before packing.

Employees at Kazi Yetu’s tea processing facility.

Slow, strategic growth

Kazi Yetu received a grant from Emory University in the US and a small loan from Anza, a growth fund based in Tanzania. Apart from this, the business is self-funded.

“Setting up the factory was tough,” reveals Nizari. “We couldn’t afford an engineer or a food consultant to help us plan our premises. We did it all ourselves through research and by asking advice.”

The same approach was taken to create recipes for the blends and flavour profiles of the tea. It takes four years to become a tea sommelier, time Nizari didn’t have, so she relied on her instinct. She and her co-founder would blend different teas with a mix of herbs and spices, every morning, to test. They also found a tea expert in the UK who guided them and gave advice.

From the start, there were challenges in the supply chain. Nizari had to find a balance between the blend recipes she hoped to introduce to the market and the reality of the availability of fair trade, organic ingredients from farms around Tanzania.

“Instead of starting at the conceptual level, dreaming about what teas and blends we would ideally want, we had to flip the thinking and focus on the farmers we procured from, by establishing a reliable high-quality supply chain and then developing our range,” she says.

Kazi Yetu’s black and green teas are sourced from a large tea estate in the Usambara Mountains, not far from Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is the only one in Tanzania that is fair trade and organic certified. Its oolong tea is farmed and pan-roasted by women. The company works with the processers who, after the leaves are plucked during harvest by the workers on the farm, have 24 hours to gently roll and dry them.

For the supply of its herbs and spices, Kazi Yetu works with local co-operatives and producer organisations, as well as directly with smallholder farmers.

Once all the dry ingredients arrive at the factory, the employees sort and, where necessary, grind them for blending. This is followed by the packing, which is done by hand. The current output is around 4,000 teabags a day; however, Nizari hopes to push this to 24,000 bags now that they have procured a tea-packing machine.

The biodegradable corn-starch pyramid teabags are then sealed, labelled, packaged and dispatched for distribution. These teabags could not be found in the local market and are currently imported from China. Nizari hopes to manufacture these in the long term.

Kilimanjaro green tea, one of Tanzania Tea Collection’s flavours.

Looking to the future

The Kazi Yetu tea brand has grown and is now found across Tanzania, specifically in tourism hubs such as Zanzibar, the Serengeti region, Dar es Salaam and Arusha. Over the last two years, the company has seen an increase in its B2B export volumes. It now also sells direct to customers in Europe through its e-commerce shop.

Nizari plans to add additional products for export by partnering with smaller agri-processors struggling to get access to overseas markets, which is something Kazi Yetu found tough initially. Eventually, it opened an office in Germany that now acts as the Kazi Yetu importer into the European continent.

Nizari also wants to establish farming operations for the tea range in the next few years, possibly rehabilitating an existing tea farm, which will assist with stable supply.

To further meet the demands of conscious consumers, Kazi Yetu is developing a traceability app where a customer would be able to scan the QR code on the back of a Kazi Yetu product anywhere in the world, enter its batch number, and see photographs and read about the specific farmers, processers and factory workers involved in the value chain of the tea contained in that pack.

“This will be a quick and easy way for consumers to connect with the producers. We see huge opportunity in a growing market,” she says.

Kazi Yetu Tanzania managing director Tahira Nizari’s contact information

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