High-tech herbal teas with a Caribbean flavor

May 11, 2014

  • Jamaican farmers combat bacteria that can affect the aromatic herbs they export around the world.

It is a simple act that happens 34,000 times every second all over the world. You put a teabag containing dried leaves into a cup and add hot water. A few minutes later, the tea, full of healthy ingredients, is ready to drink, although in some cases, it also comes with potential health risks.

After water, teas (including regular and herbal teas) are the world’s most consumed beverages. They are found in all cultures and in practically every household.

But the journey from the fresh leaves grown on the plantation to the dried filaments that will end up in a cup is fraught with risks. Perhaps the most worrying of all is contamination, particularly from bacteria such as salmonella or E-coli.

And it’s something farmers in Manchester, some 100 kilometers west of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, know all about.

Most of Manchester’s 190,000 inhabitants depend on bauxite mining for their livelihood. But to the south, which is too mountainous for traditional sugar plantations, mint crops are more appropriate. In fact today, there are over 300 mint producers in the area.

“The mint was sometimes contaminated with E. coli and salmonella. When that happened, it was dumped and the farmers weren’t paid. It is difficult to produce only to lose [money],” says Doris Lewis, President of South Manchester Herbs and Spices Cooperative.

Conditions in this mountainous region are perfect for growing high quality crops as the intense aroma of the lemon grass, mint, ginger and cinnamon drying in the sun proves. Most of the crops planted here are exported to several different countries.

“Overseas sales have increased 150% over the past four months,” says Norman Wright, Director of Perishables Jamaica Limited, who buys the dried leaves and exports them to supermarkets in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other Caribbean countries.

“This trend is expected to continue so we will always need the excellent products of South Manchester’s farmers,” says Wright.

" Now the farmers can look forward to the harvest knowing that it will bring in extra money for their families. "

Doris Lewis

President of South Manchester Herbs and Spices Cooperative

Caribbean beverage

Although herbal tea is not the first drink that comes to mind when we talk about the Caribbean, it is an increasingly profitable niche product. However, the leaves must be handled under adequate safety conditions.

Not surprisingly, the existing  infrastructure in the Jamaican countryside two hours from Kingston couldn’t guarantee leaves fit for human consumption.

Consequently, five years ago, farmers, professors, nurses and producers came together to protect both the quality of their products and the wellbeing of their community. The solution: a cooperative to share best practices, improve plant hygiene and quality and, ultimately, to protect their livelihood.

At that time, five or six producers failed plant hygiene tests each week; today, only one doesn’t  pass. Wright believes that they will soon achieve the goal of producing pathogen-fee herbs and spices.

"Now the farmers can look forward to the harvest knowing that it will bring in extra money for their families,” Lewis says.

Taking care of the environment

To make the process even safer, a modern drying facility will soon be opened. There, producers will have a hygienic, fully-controlled space to clean, process and dry the leaves. The solar-powered facility will be 100% sustainable and will include containers to collect rainwater.

Leaves brought to the facility will be separated from the branches, washed in a bleach solution and then rinsed before being transported to a controlled drying room, free from bacteria.

The facility is the first of its kind in the region and represents a revolution in traditional drying methods. All workers have received food hygiene training. Additionally, the facility is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – which is vital in order to sell to the lucrative U.S. market.

For Manchester’s farmers, 2014 will be a key year: they will produce mint under high-tech, environmentally-conscious conditions, helping them to conquer new markets.

The drying facility was funded as part of a the Rural Economic Development Initiative financed by the World Bank and implemented by  the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF).