Nondumiso Phaahla, 56, remembers how her parents would show deep gratitude when she makes tea for them. “It was a big thing!” she says. She also liked tea when she became a mother, but her children would often rebel when expected to make tea for her.
“Little did I know that the very same tea would bring us together. We love each other, we live for this tea. It has become a central pillar for our house,” says Nondumiso.
Mother and Daughter Tea
Nondumiso and her daughter Retang Phaahla, 26, are running an indigenous tea business called Setsong Tea Crafters which is modelled on embracing wild, indigenous harvested tea products from the rural area of Sekhukhune region in Marblehall, Limpopo. “There are a lot of stories around this tea,” Retang tells me while seated at the Bryanston organic market, close to their own stall.
Nondumiso is a Zulu-born woman whose lifestyle has intricately made her a Pedi woman through her tea business. The business is branded under the concept of Bapedi are boeleng setsong [“Pedi people, let’s go back to our culture, roots and heritage”].
“We have decided to go back to enjoying the nature that surrounds us, of which we were not aware because of modernisation. We have gone back to the garden of Eden,” Nondumiso says. “We, as a people, started worshiping silver and gold instead of worshiping God through nature and we have ignored the indigenous knowledge of our ancestors.”
Nondumiso was a nurse by profession until she decided to quit in 2003. She embarked on an adventure of exploring a new business model that would uplift rural communities across different provinces in South Africa.
“(Nursing) was limiting the contribution that I was feeling in my heart. I had to look for an environment that will be enabling, without being restricted by senior managers in the hospital and the department,” Nondumiso says.
This business model sought to close a socio-economic gap from rural areas by integrating indigenous knowledge and practices which could be converted into consumable items. These products would allow rural elders to benefit financially from the rare knowledge they possess.
One day, while doing some community work in the Sekhukhune area, Nondumiso noticed one of the elderly women who was drinking tea which she ground from trees in a backyard. She was unaware that the tea made from the trees contain a profound amount of nutritional value.
How the tea business started
She was deeply flabbergasted by how profound the indigenous knowledge was that the community elders of Sekhukhune carried down from their ancestors. In 2012 Nondumiso inherited a 217-hectare-farm from her uncle in-laws. Although she only utilises 5 hectares, she hopes to further expand this initiative which is rich in heritage and cultural wisdom.
In 2013, Nondumiso and her daughter partnered with the community elders who grind and handcraft the tea. After purchasing the tea, Nondumiso and Retang process it into different kinds of flavours which are packaged as iced tea and tea packets.
“Setsong is a brand that we have created to showcase all Pedi cultural aspects to make something consumable. The tea is harvested by the rural [Sekhukhune] community elders who were grinding trees into tea as they did not have money to buy Rooibos tea,” Retang explains. “Our goal is to gather different types of plants that are used as tea and extend the brand by exposing all unexposed indigenous knowledge.”
They predominantly sell two types of tea. One is called Tepane, a black bush tea containing vitamin A, C, E and zinc with a potential role in preventing degenerative diseases.
The other tea is called Diya detox tea – which is packed with anti-oxidants such as vitamin A and is responsible for nourishing and revitalising all secreting cells of the body, such as eyes, saliva cells, sweat glands and the cells that produce nasal mucus, gastric and reproductive secretions.
They were introduced to this tea by a traditional healer as part of their Bapedi a re boeleng setsong forum. “This type of tea is a natural antibiotic,” Retang says.
No one funded them when they started their business.
“So far everything has been from our own pockets. When we started we could not have waited for a financial backup and not having all the finances we needed has forced us to be more innovative,” Retang proudly says. “It has exposed new talents. I did not study any design course, but I am designing the tea packages. I did not study food science, but we are processing tea.”
Indigenous knowledge marries technology
Nondumiso is mostly in the Sekhukune area, where she stimulates the indigenous knowledge, while Retang tries to reach new potential clients using modern technology.
“Technology has played an important role. We can now expose something that has always been there in our natural landscapes and communities. By just collaborating with indigenous knowledge and adding new innovations we have been able to create something that is commercial, consumable and exciting to taste,” Retang says.
One excerpt of testimony from their websites reads: “I bought this tea for my grandfather who has been diagnosed with dementia… I made this tea for him yesterday [instead] of the European and Asian tea I usually give him. He enjoyed the taste a lot, even asking for a refill (which he never does). Last night he slept better than he has in a long time…”
Another excerpt reads: “I am very impressed with your teas and have tried the Diya and Tepane tea. I have [Rickettsia], which is a form of underlying tick-bite fever and the Diya is helping me to detox and relax at times. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of many.”
For now, the magnificently crafted rural teas are mostly enjoyed 205km away from Sekhukune, in South Africa’s most populated province, Gauteng. The product is available at a number of restaurants, coffee shops and retailers in the province.
“Without the indigenous knowledge we would not have anything to work with. Without the indigenous knowledge marrying the technology we would not have reached many people. Culture is dynamic, it changes from generation to generation…For me it has been more personal because it is part of my heritage,” Retang explains.