Wajir — Nuna Issa Harun grew up in a home in Kenya’s Wajir District where tea had to be ready for guests at any given time.
Her father, a revered elder in the Bulla Maow neighbourhood in Wajir town, received a lot of visitors who used to pay courtesy visits, and every time they came, tea had to be served to welcome them.
“In the Somali community, not offering a cup of tea is considered an affront to the guest,” Harun, 22, told Sabahi. “In the process, I learned from my mother how to prepare the best tea, which made visitors come back with the guise of visiting my father.”
When her father, who was the main breadwinner, passed away in September 2011, the family struggled to get by. After a few months, her father’s elderly friends told Harun she should turn her tea-making prowess into a business.
“It was flattery for the elders to say they missed my sweet tea,” she said.
Then the family started pondering the business proposal. Harun and her family realised that providing tea to people who leave their homes during the work day was an opportunity on which to capitalise.
In January 2012, Harun selected a high-traffic spot along the sidewalk of the Garissa-Wajir road and began selling prepared tea. A year after venturing into the business, she said her mother and four siblings are no longer struggling.
Her customers include pedestrians on their way to work and mechanics from nearby garages who buy her tea during breaks.
“My regular customers have grown from ten when I first started, to more than 100,” she said. “I make more than 40,000 shillings ($457) a month, but I know other [vendors] who make more,” she said.
Somali tea is spiced with ground cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, and usually served with milk and sugar.
Harun said the cost of a cup of tea depends on the season. “During rainy seasons when camel, goat and cattle milk is in abundance we charge as little as 10 shillings ($.11) but during dry seasons when milk is [expensive] a cup can go for as high as 30 shillings ($.34),” she said.
Halima Abdi Adan, a 31-year-old who runs a tea parlour on the Wajir-Moyale road, says her tea business has been good. She serves workers from nearby businesses, organisations and government offices.
“I have signed a contract with two non-governmental organisations and some government offices to supply them with tea and they pay at the end of the month,” Adan told Sabahi. “We also sell tea on credit to our regular customers [when they cannot pay].”
Adan said her business has grown and now employs three people who help her with the deliveries. She attributed her success to providing good customer service and high quality tea to her clients.
Selling tea has enabled her support her family of four, she said.
Any time is tea time
Zeinab Sheikh Mohammed, director of Kenya’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries in North Eastern Province, told Sabahi that women in the Somali community are cleverly using the tea drinking custom to achieve financial independence.
“The business has gained prominence in the past two years. Women discovered that they can take advantage of good traditions to generate income,” she said. “In this province, any time is tea time. Even with the high temperatures here, it is very common to encounter people drinking a steaming cup of tea at noon.”
The news of this new business has spread to remote villages and now tea parlours can be found along transit roads to rural areas where women target travellers, she said.
“We do not have the exact number of the women in the business, but streets and alleys in the major towns of North Eastern Province are clogged with people selling tea and customers sipping,” she said, adding that the tea business is a great opportunity because it does not need much capital to start.
Tea culture spreads peace
Wajir Peace and Development Agency co-ordinator Hussein Adan Mohamud told Sabahi that the age old tea drinking custom has helped bring cohesion among warring tribal groups.
“The custom of drinking tea transcends tribal, social, political and educational barriers. The elite will drink tea side by side with an illiterate person in these tea parlours,” he said.
He said the tea tradition is regarded as the best way to make a guest feel welcomed, and after altercations or misunderstandings, offering to buy someone a cup of tea is an indication that there are no hard feelings.
Even the non-Somali communities who live or work in the province have adopted the tea drinking culture.
“When I came here, tea drinking was not my favourite thing, but now I love it,” said Nick Musasia, who teaches information technology at Achievers Computer College in Wajir town.
“On a given day, I can drink more than ten cups of tea. I normally dash to my favourite tea parlour for a tea break every two hours,” he said.