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African Agency in China’s Tea Trade: A Conversation with Ute Röschenthaler

March 5, 2023

African Agency in China’s Tea Trade: A Conversation with Ute Röschenthaler

Miriam Driessen, Ute Röschenthaler

How has Chinese green tea become Mali’s national drink? By retracing the tea supply chain from Bamako’s corner shops and wholesale markets to southern China’s tea plantations and processing plants, in African Agency in China’s Tea Trade (Brill, 2022), Ute Röschenthaler describes in vivid detail how a distinctly Chinese product is transformed and localised through its selection, packaging, branding, shipping, advertising, and, perhaps most importantly, consumption as part of Mali’s tea ritual. Her book reveals how consumers in Mali and other West African countries, alongside established merchants from the region, give shape not just to the trade of Chinese green tea, but also to the China-based production process and ultimately the product itself.

Miriam Driessen: How have Malian tastes shaped the tea trade between Mali and China? And how have these tastes, along with the ways in which Malians consume tea, developed over time?

Ute Röschenthaler: Malian expectations of the taste of tea have been shaped by cultural memories of its arrival from across the Sahara [see Figure 1]. To this day, people in Mali are convinced that only traders from the northern part of the country know where to acquire the best tea. In this part of Mali, in Timbuktu, the first Chinese green tea arrived in the early nineteenth century, after a long journey via Britain and Morocco across the Sahara. It was prepared in special equipment reserved for the purpose, with generous amounts of cone sugar, and served in tiny Chinese porcelain bowls during an impressive ritual that could last for several hours.

After Mali’s independence in 1960, its government created, with Chinese help, a small tea plantation in southern Mali. However, the fresh homegrown product tasted different from the tea that consumers had previously known—a green tea whose aroma had been inscribed by years in the bellies of ships and on camel backs. For this reason, and to cater for the growing demand the local product was then mixed with imported tea from China. During that time the state was the only legal importer of tea.

Following economic reforms in 1991, private trade was permitted, and Chinese traders began to sell cheap Gunpowder tea in Mali. This type of tea—known in China as zhucha (珠茶)—received its international name because it is rolled into small pellets that reminded consumers of bullets or gunpowder pellets. In Mali this tea is most often referred to with the French term gros grains, ‘big seeds’. However, this tea also did not appeal to Malian consumers, who preferred good Chunmee or ‘eyebrow’ tea, named for its longish rolled leaves, reminiscent of the shape of eyebrows.

Malian merchants quickly understood where the tea could be obtained and travelled to China to visit plantations and tea factories to start to import their own tea. Good Chunmee tea became affordable, and growing numbers of Malian consumers made Chinese green tea their favourite beverage to be consumed with friends in tea groups [see Figure 2]. Tea was praised by many, and criticised by others, and issues of national importance began to be debated in terms of tea. Tea had become Mali’s national drink.

Most Malians praised tea as a medicine, an energiser, and a medium of communication that brought people together to exchange ideas and experiences. At the same time, others began to hold tea responsible for the unemployment of educated youths, corruption, and the decline of social values. The young, they alleged, would sit the whole day and chat instead of looking for jobs; and gifts of tea served politicians as an excuse for embezzling money and to convince people to vote for them. No-one could have conceived of discussing such critical topics in terms of black tea or coffee.

(Figure 1, Left) Tea package depicting the journey across the Sahara. Source: Ute Röschenthaler. (Figure 2, Right) Tea ritual, Bamako, 2018. Source: Adama Keita.
Figure 3: Billboard advertising Askia teas of different quality, Bamako, 2007. Source: Ute Röschenthaler.

MD: Even though Chinese traders are active in the tea sector in Mali, you show that they are largely outcompeted by Malian traders, especially those coming from long-established trading families involved in the trans-Saharan trade. What explains Malian traders’ dominance of the trade of Chinese tea in Mali and beyond?

UR: Before independence, trade was carried out by members of trading families who acted as the privileged traders of the various local rulers. These families had representatives in each trading town. This provided them with access to intricate trade networks through which they distributed their commodities. Only after the 1991 economic reforms did people from other families begin to develop ambitions to trade. But they and the Chinese newcomers lacked extensive distribution networks, the experience from generations of trading, and the knowledge of which kind of tea would sell well on the Malian market. Many of them assumed that any cheap tea would be appreciated as there was a lack of tea in the early 1990s.

At that time, the price of the tea still matched its quality, and many consumers indeed bought the cheaper teas [see Figure 3]. Towards the end of the 2000s, however, all the 25-gram packages with various qualities of tea were available for the same price and consumers now preferred to purchase the better qualities. These higher-quality teas were in most cases imported by the descendants of the former trading families, who were also able to import larger quantities of tea due to their easier access to capital and to extensive distribution networks. Owing to their professional advantages, Malian merchants managed to remain the dominant actors in the trade. This was different, for instance, from the trade in household goods, the sale of which required less local knowledge and depended less strongly on quick distribution and the caprices of fashions and tastes.

MD: You describe how Malian traders use the notion of ‘the work of tea’ to capture the intricate knowledge of tea, the awareness of brands and brand value, and familiarity with the specificities of the tea trade and the logics of the market. How is this mastery acquired and cultivated among Malian traders and between Malian and Chinese traders?

UR: Malian tea merchants emphasised the importance of knowing ‘the work of tea’ as a requirement to be successful importers. It is intriguing that they consider their profession to be ‘work’, which differs from the established idea elaborated, for example, by Georg Simmel that trade is not considered work because traders make a living by the profit margin earned without physical labour. The Malian example illustrates that the profit margin is the result of the exercise of this ‘work of tea’, which requires several years of experience as an apprentice in a relative’s business, taking growing degrees of responsibility, and learning by doing. The ‘work of tea’ also includes access to distribution networks, knowledge of the market and its workings, and collaboration with reliable trading partners. Among the greatest challenges that tea merchants noted was winning the trust of their Chinese suppliers in an environment tainted by mutual distrust.

Points of dispute between Malian and Chinese partners are above all about the willingness of the importers to pay, the stable quality of the delivered tea, and the piracy of tea brands. The consistent quality of the tea is decisive for the ongoing success of a brand, although when the volume of orders increases, the factory is not always able to deliver the same quality. Successful importers will then know how to wisely manage the brand and closely cooperate with their suppliers to keep the brand alive in a competitive market. When both partners overcome their mutual distrust, they can develop successful brands that satisfy consumers and sell for many years.

Figures 4a, 4b, and 4c: Examples of commemorative tea packages. Source: Ute Röschenthaler.

MD: You demonstrate that the success of a tea brand depends on the collaboration between Malian and Chinese business partners and the creative input of both parties. Can you describe how tea brands are co-designed or co-created and explain why collaboration is crucial?

UR: Right from the beginning of my research on tea in Mali, I was fascinated by the design of the tea packages and their names and images—elements that often do not have anything to do with the product they sell. They embody a vibrant culture of commemoration. Some brand names and images depict plants and strong animals; others refer to Mali’s history, trading places, and trade routes; while others allude to Islam (the majority of Malians are Muslims) and to topical events, technical innovations, and political conflicts such as the Iraq War of the early 1990s and early 2000s, the Africa Cup of 2002, the introduction of an independent television station in 2004, the election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008, the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Mali’s independence in 2010, and the conflict in northern Mali in 2012 [see Figures 4a, 4b, and 4c]. I started collecting them and, so far, I have gathered more than 240 different tea packages.

The package designs are Sino-Malian co-creations. To establish a new tea brand, Malian merchants usually travel to China to find a reliable trading partner and a suitable tea. Once they reach an agreement, the Malian merchant proposes the design of the tea brand, which normally consists of an image, a brand name, and particular colours that make the brand stand out and become easily recognisable. The Chinese side then develops the design and returns it to the Malian merchant for approval and further suggestions until both partners are satisfied. The Malian partner’s share in the creation depends on their personal engagement and inventiveness. Both parties contribute their creative ideas but, in the end, the brand design always belongs to the Malian merchant, even if the largest contribution came from the Chinese designer. This is because the Malian merchant commissions the Chinese partner.

MD: Brand piracy is prevalent in what you call the ‘social life’ of Chinese tea in Mali. How has copying and counterfeiting or ‘collage and montage’ shaped tea brands and their circulation?

UR: With the ‘social life’ of the tea brands, I refer to the shifting meanings of these brands as they are employed in new contexts. When a brand is copied, it moves in legal terms from being an original with a legitimate owner to being an illegal copy. Such a copy of a popular brand is often followed by further copies and subsequent copies of copies in various evolutions and modifications, with the first brand still somehow recognisable [see Figures 5a, 5b, and 5c]. From a philosophical perspective, similarity is an undefined concept and based on subjective impressions, but copyright law does not problematise the concept. It defines a brand as a unique and recognisable creation that is the exclusive property of its creator or owner.

Both Chinese and Malian traders are aware of unauthorised copying and the subsequent loss of brand value when the quality of the copied product is lower. They understand that brand registration is the ground that allows them, if necessary, to defend their rights regarding the ownership of their brands. If a Malian trader wants to sell copies of a popular tea in West Africa, they need a Chinese supplier to produce the copies for them. To commit Chinese factories to refrain from producing such copied brands, Malian and Chinese trading partners created an innovative solution, according to which a brand—which is principally the exclusive property of the Malian merchant—is protected in both Mali and China. In Mali, it is registered in the copyright office by the Malian merchant and guarantees their right to sell the product in Francophone Africa; in China, it is registered again, by the Chinese trading partner, to discourage other Chinese traders from producing the brand there and selling the pirated product to West Africa. This is a form of shared brand ownership, and this works because the only market for these tea brands is West Africa, where the Malian merchant has the legal authorisation to sell them. Of course, for this to work, the establishment of a bond of trust between the Malian and the Chinese partner is essential. Furthermore, my findings reveal that Chinese and Malian traders prefer not to sue brand pirates but seek to find, if possible, an amiable solution without the intervention of a court. In their experience, court judgements do not solve the conflict but create ongoing hostility.

MD: What is the extent of African agency in the trade of Chinese green tea? Has this changed over the past decade?

UR: My book intended to carve out some of the complexities in which Malian tea importers find themselves entangled. On the one hand, they participate in the market and intellectual property economy with its bureaucratic apparatus; on the other hand, they hesitate to embrace these institutions as they inflate their expenses and tend to create animosities that most importers seek to defuse. They do so, for example, by refraining from suing their colleagues and, rather, forgiving them. They are convinced that good social relationships are in the long run more rewarding than demanding punishment and the payment of compensation. Over the course of the past centuries, agency in the tea trade has shifted among the various economic actors, from numerous brokers in the nineteenth century, via the Malian State as the principal actor during postcolonial times, back to the established trading families in the 1990s, when prudent tea importers navigated between the neoliberal institutions and a moral economy of social relationships. They managed to assert themselves with their knowledge, experience, and networks in this competitive sector of the South–South or, better, South–East trade.

Figures 5a, 5b, and 5c: Tea Gazelle and two of its copies. Source: Ute Röschenthaler.

Miriam Driessen is an anthropologist by training. Her work explores Chinese-led development from below, looking at issues such as migration, labour, gender and sexuality, language, and, more recently, law. She has published in various journals including American Anthropologist, The China Quarterly, and African Affairs and is the author of Tales of Hope, Tastes of Bitterness: Chinese Road Builders in Ethiopia(Hong Kong University Press, 2019).
Ute Röschenthaler is Extracurricular Professor of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany. She is one of the Principal Investigators in the collaborative research project ‘Cultural Entrepreneurship and Digital Transformation in Africa and Asia’ and leads a research project on African textile markets. Her research areas include economic anthropology, intellectual property, trade networks, and cultural mobility, with a regional focus on West and Central Africa and Africans in Asia. Her most recent book is A History of Mali’s National Drink: Following the Tea Ritual from China to West Africa (Brill, 2022).
The Peoples Map of Global China
Johannes Gutenberg University


Volume 1, Issue 2, 2022