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It's time for high indigenous tea

Tea entrepreneur Retang Phaahla
Tea entrepreneur Retang Phaahla

From the English pastime of high tea to the hot South American tradition of iced tea and the milky concoctions of India's chai wallah (tea makers), you'd think there wouldn't be anything more to discover about the drink.

But, this week I discovered that there are various indigenous teas from this country and one woman is making sure that the knowledge of this tea and its consumption does not disappear into the dustbins of history.

Retang Phaahla is the co- founder of Setsong Teas, a three-year-old tea manufacturing business. She uses indigenous knowledge to make artisanal, hand-crafted tea made from wild African flora.

Phaahla was the top female entrepreneur, coming in third place, at the SA Innovation Summit and Small Enterprise Development Agency's Pitch & Perfect competition, winning technology incentives to the value of R100,000.

"I feel indigenous knowledge has been undermined and hasn't been given credit," she said.

It was Phaahla's mother, Nondumiso, a former nurse, who found community members using indigenous teas while doing her community work through her nonprofit organisation, which helps the community to generate income from skills and whatever resources they have available.

"In Sekhukhune there is a lot of indigenous knowledge. There are a lot of people using herbs and herbal remedies for a lot of reasons.

"Growing up, my grandmother would have herbs in the yard and make tea out of all of that," said Phaahla

"Through my mom's project, two types of teas were discovered. My mom came back to me and said I've discovered tea back home in Limpopo, but I don't really know what to do now," she said.

Setsong Tea is a brand of local handcrafted tea made from wild African flora.
Setsong Tea is a brand of local handcrafted tea made from wild African flora.

Phaahla, a quantity surveyor by profession, then made up her mind to work with her mother.

She said she hates routine and was looking for a
challenge at the time, plus the construction industry had lost its lustre.

"I was looking for something different to do. I was looking to start my own business. I started going back with her to the community, speaking to the women in the village and understanding the use of the tea and what it was traditionally used for.

"That inspired me to experiment with the tea and develop it into a commercial product," she said.

Phaahla and her mother then took the tea to her alma mater, the University of Pretoria, where the tea was tested and found to have many health benefits.

The tea plants are indigenously called tepane and diya.

She sells the tea in tins of 80g and 40g, priced at R100 each.

The Phaahlas have a farm where people can visit to see how the tea was made in the past and how it is made now.

The community supplies the Phaahlas with the tea, and then they harvest and process it. The entrepreneurial duo buy it from them and then add the infusions and package it.

Research by the University of Pretoria has found that the tea has beneficial health properties.
Research by the University of Pretoria has found that the tea has beneficial health properties.

"Tepane basically makes a blackbush tea which naturally contains vitamins A, C and zinc.

"The diya is a red-root tea that contains beta carotene, fibre and zinc," said Phaahla.

"Traditionally the teas were used for general wellness and treatments for certain ailments.

"The tepane tea is good in boosting your immune system and fighting diseases," she said.

The scientific results from the University of Pretoria focused on the health benefits.

The 26-year-old said she is planning to infuse the tea with fruit and herbs and making iced tea to sell at farmers' markets.

"A traction started growing; people were buying the ice tea even though we were packaging the tea in brown paper packets.

"We started making more, improving the packaging and creating more flavours. That's basically how the journey started."

Quality is something she's serious about.

"I do all the product development. I create all the infusions from scratch.

"I'll never promote an infusion or send it to the manufacturing team if it's not something that I love," she said.

The company is part of a programme under the department of higher education, science and technology, focusing on innovating indigenous knowledge.

Iced tea recipe


Makes: 2 litres

1. Place 3 tbl. spoons of Setsong loose leaf tea into a jug, add boiling water and allow to sit for 5 minutes

2. Squeeze a full lemon's worth of juice into the tea & add honey

3. Refrigerate until chilled.

4. Serve with lots of ice and garnish with mint and berries.

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