There isn’t a Pantone shade that matches the colour of Yswara Tea Room, located in the revamped Cosmopolitan building in Maboneng, Johannesburg. It is a shade that Yswara founder Swaady Martin has developed — a delicate pink that is echoed in the rows of tins and boxes of tea lining the walls, and the occasional brightly polished rose gold Ethiopian cross and engraved Moroccan tray.

On a low shelf, open glass containers hold samples of each tea blend. Visitors wander in from the sculpture garden below and work their way through the perfumes of these samples — coconut, spices, vanilla, hibiscus, buchu — or sip hot, golden tea.

The blend names allude to Africa’s history as a continent of empires, kingdoms and unrivalled centres of learning — a history mostly lost these days in the constant iteration of Africa as a place of “poverty, dictatorships, colonisation, and lack of resources and education”, as Martin puts it. “The youth in Africa are unaware of their rich heritage and what is possible. Our full history deserves to be shared and cherished.”

By invoking historic achievements, it’s possible to find the inspiration to strive for future greatness — finding, in the past, a vision for the future.

The starting point of the business is really about transforming African agricultural resources locally
Swaady Martin

But a vision doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a plan — which Martin does. Several years ago, she left a high-powered career with General Electric to go it alone, launching Yswara — “curator of precious African teas” — and, subsequently, organic gourmet brand Akrafo. Both are guided by what she occasionally describes as a “manifesto”.

First, she has set out to address the commodities trap Africa is mired in.

“The starting point of the business is really about transforming African agricultural resources locally,” says Martin. “If you look at all the raw commodities coming out of Africa, in the top 100 companies selling the finished products, not one is African.

“Take chocolate: Africa supplies 85% of the world’s cocoa, yet not one of the top 100 chocolate brands is African. If you look at tea, Africa is the third-largest, sometimes largest exporter of tea in the world [China and India are big producers, but they consume mostly locally], yet in the top 100 or 200 tea brands, not one is African. The same is true for most of Africa’s agricultural produce.

“That, for me, is an anomaly: the continent produces all these sought-after commodities but when it comes to the end product, for the past hundreds of years — because these exports date from colonial times — Africa has not been able to move from being a producer of raw commodities, to being a producer of finished products.”

Martin aims to play a role in changing this by developing products that are “exceptional; made in Africa, using African resources”.

To this end she has spent the past five years sourcing produce from mainly small farmers and suppliers, and working with them to upgrade their quality.

Everyone knows of the continent’s wealth of resources, but not everyone knows that these include tea: black, white and green teas are grown in many African countries, for example Rwanda and Malawi; rooibos and honeybush come from SA; hibiscus tea is from Nigeria and Sudan; and baobab tea is produced in Botswana.

And the list goes on ...

The British, famed for their love of a cuppa, get much of their tea from Zimbabwe.

According to Martin, tea farmers will typically sell their crops to mass-market tea purveyors at about US$1/kg; teas from all estates are then combined and processed mechanically, so that the final tea remains consistent in taste. Often, bits of stem and leaves are crushed into the blend.

In contrast, premium teas are handpicked, so only the leaves are used, and crops are separated according to estates: terroir can play as much a role in the flavour of fine tea as it does for wine.

The tea picked on one estate may vary considerably from another, as will that picked at higher altitudes, where less oxygen in the air results in a stronger tea.

A premium tea can command substantially more per kilogram for the farmer — upwards of $80 — so increasing the demand for such produce benefits the farmer.

Yswara’s dedication to upgrading local capacity extends all the way along the production line. At present, about 80% of the company’s finished products are made using African materials — everything except the tins and the copper plates adorning them. However, Martin hopes that by the end of next year, all her products will be sourced locally.

Reconsidering the continent

In addition to addressing the commodities gap, Martin also wants to alter perceptions about Africa. This underpins Yswara’s celebration of the continent’s past glories — empires, kingdoms and cultural heroes — as well as some of the traditional values held in different parts.

Yswara’s Teranga collection, for example, references the Senegalese “belief that hospitality is more than an art and culture; it is a way of life”. The Wolof term, as described on one of Yswara’s tea boxes “encompasses the honour, respect, generosity and blessings that hosts lavish upon their guests”.

At the same time, the brands themselves are resolutely contemporary and upmarket — intended to be at home alongside any other luxury product. They leave no room for stereotypes: there’s nothing crafty or ethnic about them — “No Masai beads,” says Martin repeatedly — and none of the brown packaging that one commentator thought would be more appropriate for a product from Africa. If there’s any continent that can lay claim to a full spectrum of colours, retorts Martin, it’s Africa: “Our skies are that pink ... Our sand-dunes!”

And besides, she points out, no-one would expect Karl Lagerfeld, a German designing for two French brands, to work with colours alluding to Germany.

Finally, Martin extends her commitment to African values to her business model, which she terms “luxe ubuntu” — a fusion of capitalism and the “spirit of kinship ... upheld by the ideals of compassion, dignity, harmony and humanity” of the ubuntu philosophy.

 

What this means in practice, for example, is allowing an element of trust in negotiations with farmers and suppliers around price: no cutthroat bargaining for rock-bottom deals. What the farmer says is the best price, goes — bearing in mind that payment represents the ability for him or her to send children to school, put food on the table and, ultimately, thrive. At all levels of the company and in all its interactions, people should be dealt with as people, not as figures, she says.

After five years of existence, Yswara seems to be in good shape. The tea room in Maboneng is a small part of a much bigger enterprise, much of it wholesale. The brand exports to 17 countries and has scored several international awards — the French Institute of Luxury nominated it as a “new luxury talent” in 2013, and Brand Africa named it the Emerging African Brand of 2015.

The Maboneng tea shop itself has had to move upstairs in the Cosmopolitan to accommodate the number of visitors passing through.

If Yswara continues its upward trajectory and eventually wins a place among the top 100 global tea brands, its unique pink is likely to become a familiar sight.

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