Eastern highlands: The home of tea

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NESTLED at the foot of the country’s highest mountain range, at Nyanga, in the Eastern Highlands, is the setting for the Mtarazi Falls; the second-highest fall in the world, which tumble down 500 metres to the valley floor.  

The Falls plummet over the edge of the Nyanga Escarpment into the thickly wooded slopes below where the dense woodlands are the stamping ground of the rare Blue Duiker. 

Dropping steeply from the Nyanga Escarpment to an altitude of only 700 metres above sea level, is the sparsely populated Honde Valley, which runs eastwards to the Mozambique border.  The valley’s fertile abundance comes from the waters of the Honde, Pungwe, Nyakombe and Ruwere rivers.

Honde Valley is located about 130km from Mutare, and 110km from Nyanga.  

The valley is formed as part of the Eastern Highlands mountain range which extends from the eastern border of Zimbabwe into Mozambique. 

Mount Nyangani, the highest point in Zimbabwe, rises 2 592 metres above sea level, forms the western boundary of the valley. 

Since the area is low-lying and hot it is an abundant tea and coffee growing area.  

Apart from Katiyo Tea Estates, it was also home to Eastern Highlands Tea Estate, Aberfoyle Plantations, Rumbizi and Chiwira Tea Estates that are situated in the valley and is also home to many small-scale and subsistence farmers.

One of the biggest problems faced in this underdeveloped area, was the steady exodus of young people to the larger urban centres of the country.  

To counteract this and, at the same time, develop its massive agricultural potential, an investigation was launched by the Tribal Trust Land Development Corporation (TILCOR), in early 1969, into the possibilities of growing tea in these parts.  

This resulted in the then (Rhodesian) Ministry of Internal Affairs, which had for some six to seven years operated a plot-holder tea scheme in the region, authorising the African Development Fund to invest up to Rhod$20 000 on seedlings and establishing seedbeds.

The TILCOR took over the operation shortly after, with the mandate of growing tea profitably under irrigation on an estate-managed basis.  

Additionally, it was believed that by establishing tea factories, processing plants and ancillary installations, the local inhabitants could be reoriented from subsistence crop production to a cash economy level.  

This resulted in the establishment of Katiyo Tea Estate in the face of the ‘Bush War’.  

‘Katiyo’ literally means ‘newly hatched chick’.  

Access roads were built through the valley, a nursery was established, tea lands were surveyed, cut and cleared and an efficient over-head irrigation system was installed.  

All at a total investment of Rhod$I,15 million.

Irrigation was needed in the dry season to keep the tea in perfect condition, even in the high-rainfall eastern district’s Honde Valley.

As Katiyo was established on a sound technical footing, the end of the 1972-1973 season witnessed the initial 95 hectares of land producing green leaf.  

By the middle of the 1976-1977 season, no less than 300 hectares of land was successfully returning green leaf of high quality.

Tea is a refreshing drink to most people.  

To the layman, it is merely a pleasant tasting beverage, enjoyed by preference with or without the addition of milk, sugar and/or lemon and drunk with or without ceremony.  

To the connoisseur, however, the tea bush is a thing of beauty.  The bush is planted, watered and, if it survives, it achieves its first ‘flush’ of pluckable tender green shoots any time within six-to-18 months of planting out.  

The tea bush only reaches maximum production during its ninth year of growth when only the two leaves and a bud at the end of every twig are plucked by pickers.

Since the main area of profitability in tea production is in the processing; where very reasonable returns per kg of tea can be realised. 

A Rhod$140 000 tea factory on the estate, was planned for 1976. 

However, the production of tea surpassed all expectation and therefore, plans had to be advanced by a full year.  

Thus, the factory began tea production in February 1975 and by the end of July, the same year, 110 000 kg of made tea had been produced in the new factory.  

The following year, the production of tea at Katiyo reached 330 000 kg. 

Development in the area was advanced in other directions.  

For example, there were also 20 hectares of land planted to Arabica coffee.  

Coffee trees, already planted, with an estimated seven tonnes being reaped when the first anticipated coffee yield was due for harvest, warranted the building of a factory to process the coffee crop.  

However, 16 tonnes of coffee beans were harvested in the first season starting May 1976.

Once more, with the primary development of coffee, as with tea, the allied secondary development of a coffee pulpery and processing facilities on the estate had to be set in speedy motion, to be complete by the time the first coffee crop was harvested. 

The TILCOR had  anticipated that within the ensuing year-or-so, the lands under coffee would be expanded to cover 88 hectares. This was anticipated to provide an ultimate yield of at least 32 tonnes of coffee beans a year.

Notwithstanding the intensification of the war at the time, it was anticipated that, with roads and electricity supply already developed for the Katiyo Tea Estate, any further development in the area would follow swiftly.  

With the coffee plantations ready to bear fruit, and various experimental crops being planted in order to ascertain the area’s suitability for intensive agriculture, the scene was set to encourage the move of industry and ancillary services into the area, and simultaneously stem the flow of rural to urban migration.  

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and lecturer. She is a published author in her field.  

For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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