Almost all the green tea that is taken in Mali, and other West African countries, is produced in China. When the tea arrives in Mali, it has already made a long journey. In China it is produced in family gardens and processed and packaged in factories. Green tea for the African market is placed in containers right in the factory and carried by trucks to the ports of Southern China. Container ships carry it in 45 days to West African ports from where most of the tea is transported by rail or trucks to Mali in the interior.
Compared to earlier centuries, the tea’s movement from China to Africa in 45 days is fast and the quantities have become much larger. When tea first arrived in the Sahel in the nineteenth century, it came in small amounts and often had travelled as long as two or three years. The aroma of the long journey in the storerooms of ships, in warehouses and on camel back had inscribed itself in the taste of the beverage that Malians came to love and associate with tea. The journey began in the family gardens in China’s mountainous interior and continued with human carriers or on boats along rivers southwards to the coast near Canton where the Chinese emperor had his agents, the co-hongs, who were to control the export trade with Europeans.
From the sixteenth century onwards, European sailing ships took green tea to Europe. The Portuguese were first, then came the Dutch and in the seventeenth century also the British. At first, Europeans were not interested in tea at all, as they were looking for silk, porcelain and spices but soon got to love the new Chinese beverage. Soon, also Swedish, Prussian, Belgian, Danish and later, after independence, also American ships were on the spot to trade in tea.
The British got to know about tea from the Dutch traders, but considered it as a medicine not very pleasant to take. It was after the Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza had married Charles II in London in 1662 that tea was introduced to the court as a pleasurable beverage. And henceforth, increasing quantities of green tea were ordered with the British East India Company from China. When Queen Anne at the beginning of the seventeenth century was urged to free British sailors and fishermen who were held in captivity by the Moroccan Sultan, she thought that green tea together with fine pieces of Chinese porcelain and copper kettles to prepare it, would soften the heart of the Sultan and rescue the captives. Sultan Ismail, however, did not release the prisoners but took the porcelain and the tea, prepared the beverage and began to like it.
Sultan Ismail’s follower Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah created Essaouira in 1764 to be able to better control the trade with foreign countries, especially Europeans, and also the tea trade. He endowed the Sultan’s traders with the monopoly of import and export business. These traders were in the majority Jewish. They quickly established trading networks in England and southern Morocco, and also contributed to the dissemination green tea. A tea ceremony was established at the court, and the next Sultan Mawlay Suleiman even created an entire ministry of tea for regulating tea matters.
Through the Jewish traders, Saharan caravan traders got to know about tea and its strengthening qualities that helped them support the long and tedious journey across the big dessert to the Sahel. In the trading towns of Timbuktu and Djenne, which are situated in present-day Mali, tea arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The caravan traders showed the tea to their agents in the Sahelian trading towns who again showed it to the local rulers and to their guests and customers. For more than a century, however, tea-taking remained in the trading towns of the Sahel.
Only after independence the population in the southern part of Mali got to know about tea, when government opened shops in which green tea, black tea and coffee, and many other things, were sold. Green tea was always held in special esteem, as there was a specific ceremony connected with its consumption, which conveyed a flair of elegance ad exclusivity. Taking tea in Mali was not associated with French colonialism (different from black tea and coffee). The green tea ceremony became more well-known when individuals from northern Mali, who worked in the administration in the different towns, regularly took tea and invited their friends and colleagues. They had regular salaries, which enabled them to purchase green tea that was still considered a luxury in the first decades of independence.
One of the projects of Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, was to make the country independent from foreign imports. With a delegation of his ministers, he travelled to China to cooperate with the Chinese government and establish plantations for sugar, tea and other useful trees and plants. In the late 1960s, Mali had its own small tea plantation and produced small quantities of green tea. However, its production was not enough to satisfy the rising demand. The state-owned import-export society purchased more tea directly from China. Only in the 1980s, tea gradually became cheaper and the young people got enough means to buy tea and tea equipment for themselves.
After the market reforms of the early 1990s, private traders were allowed to freely import luxury goods such as tea from abroad. Since then, still more people in Mali began to consume tea, often several times a day. Only then, the small tea packages were created and the number of tea brands increased.
Until today, nearly all tea comes from China. It is brought to Africa by Chinese and Malian importers. They place the orders, purchase tea and its transport to West Africa. One entire container is the minimum for orders. Most Malian importers regularly travel to China to inspect tea plantations and factories and choose the quality of green tea according to the preference of their customers. The successful importers are the model for many other traders who want to try their luck in the tea business, which contributed to the large number of tea brands on the Malian market.