East African entrepreneurs honour their grandmother’s legacy through Tea business

Photo of Semmi taken by Photographer, Bernardson www.bernardson.com

Nothing brings back memories of home like a big tall hot glass of black tea, or as I and many East Africans call it shahee. As a child, my home was often filled with the scent of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves as a fresh pot of tea was being prepared. Tea was everything and still is for me! I’d often venture out to cafes looking for that familiar taste but nothing quite brought back those distinct flavours of home. That is until I was introduced to Tib Tib House of Tea.  Tib Tib House of Tea not only has delicious African teas, they also have an amazing story.

As a way to pay honor to the legacy of their grandmother, a hardworking Eritrean farmer who raised ten children and grandchildren, cousins Semmi and Meskela launched Tib Tib House of Tea, a tea company dedicated to serving tea beverages inspired by East Africa.

Black Foodie had the pleasure to chat with Semmi, the founder and director, as well as one half of Tib Tib House of Tea. Check out our interview below.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I go by Semmi W., and I just love food! And when it comes to tea, I am a feen! Before Tib Tib House of Tea, I was working in media and plotting a career in broadcast journalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What inspired Tib Tib Tea?

My cousin and I started Tib Tib House of Tea after we realized that black spice tea from East Africa wasn’t easily found in stores. At the time,
whenever my friends or colleagues would visit my place in NY, I would offer tea- the same kind of spice tea I grew up with. I didn’t think it was special or different until I had a conversation with my cousin, (who lives in Washington D.C.). She told me that she’d get similar, excited reactions to the spice tea she’d brew for others. So we decided to try creating our own spice tea blend flavor, East Africa Chai. People really liked it, so we decided to launch a full-scale tea company.

What are some common misconceptions about tea and the tea industry?

I think the biggest misconception people have about tea is that they are actually drinking tea- there are so many companies out there that sell tea dust or “fanning” instead of actual whole tea leaves. Fanning is essential “tea dust” or the leftover stuff from broken tea leaves. In terms of the tea industry, one thing that really surprised me when I first started, was seeing how little the politics of land ownership and tea estates has changed in many countries. Our grandmother was a rural farmer in Eritrea and she, like many women in her time, didn’t get much out of all of the work she did. That’s why it was really important for me that our tea leaves come from farming cooperatives and tea estates which give producers direct equity.

Photo of Tibereh, Semmi’s “Abai” or grandmother with some of her grandkids. The baby she is holding Tib Tib co-founder, Meskela Michael (her cousin in D.C.). The photo was taken in Keren, Eritrea.

As East African women, we want to help change the narrative of land ownership back home. However, doing so, means we have to stay extremely vigilant… information on suppliers, unions, and news is always changing.

How is Tib Tib Tea company unique?

Tib Tib House of Tea is unique because we only offer tea blends and beverages sourced from Africa. I think here in the West, we associate tea as either being an outdated, “British” colonial thing or an Asian phenomenon. Kenya is the biggest exporter of black tea in the world. There are so many different ingredients and brewing traditions in African countries. Through Tib Tib House of Tea, we aim to put a spotlight on all of them. Also, ten percent of our sales go towards helping displaced migrants and refugees. As a social enterprise, the global migrant crisis is really at the heart of our mission.

 
I am the daughter of refugees. We named our company “Tib Tib” to honor the legacy of our grandmother, Tib-ereh. She raised 10 children and grandchildren as a single mother through a war. Most, if not all of her children and grandchildren became refugees. She lost her home, her husband died. And yet, she managed to thrive. That’s why her hut is our logo, it’s a reminder to never give up!

What is the most challenging part of growing your Tea biz?

Honestly, every day there is a new fire to put out. It never ends. But, I think for me, the most challenging part is continuing to ensure the quality of our tea blends- we source everything from Kenya and Egypt, but I don’t live there. So keeping tabs on sourcing from abroad, and understanding how import and export rules work can be really challenging at times.

What advice would you give to upcoming Food entrepreneurs? Particularly Black women in this space?

You have to get comfortable with rejection. It will be at every stage of growth so try your best not to dwell on it. Keep it moving! And as a black woman, it can be tricky when it comes to food entrepreneurship. There is such a messy history when it comes to food service. I can’t tell you the number of times people have taken me for the “help” at events, asking me to throw out the garbage or clean the bathroom… when I am not even in a uniform. There are many aspects of start-up culture that can feel extremely alienating. When people don’t take me seriously as an entrepreneur, I used to take it to heart. But now, anytime I have a meeting or I am in a space where I feel like I am the “only one,” I just silently remind myself that I have a right to be there. My company’s purpose is not to manage the opinions/bias of others. As a black female entrepreneur, one of the best things you can do is to leverage your networks so you can vent. Make sure you have several contacts on deck that you can vent to, even if they are not in the same exact field. I learned the hard way- you don’t have to hold everything inside.

What’s your goal for Tib Tib Tea and what’s next?

My ultimate goal for Tib Tib House of Tea is to help 1 million refugees and displaced migrants. It’s a big number, but I think it’s doable! The rest of this year will be really exciting because we’ll be expanding our flavor offerings so that’s what’s next- more Tib Tib Tea flavors. Right now, we’re on a worldwide tea tour, taking our Brooklyn cafe on the road. So we’ll be doing pop-up shops in different cities and learning/meeting refugee populations around the world. Our first stop is Toronto and so far, we’ve had a blast! Next month, we’ll be in Europe. And that should be really interesting because countries like Italy, France, Germany, and Greece have dealt with and are still continuing to process migrants from many African countries.

What are some creative ways to use Tib Tib Tea? (Maybe include the cocktail recipe and I can link to in separate article)

Clearly, I am biased, but I feel like our East Africa Chai tastes good with everything! Our customers have told us all kinds of ways they’ve mixed our teas. But I think my two favorite ways to use our East Africa Chai flavor blend in the summer is either with Hennessy (recipe below) or with fresh apple and ginger juice as a mocktail. So yummy!

Tib Tib Henny Chai Cocktail

INGREDIENTS
2 oz East Africa Chai
1.5 oz Hennessy V.S
.5 oz vanilla bean extract or paste
1 oz agave syrup [to taste] .5 oz fresh lemon juice
Ice cubes
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
Lemon slices [for garnish]
DIRECTIONS:
Steep Tib Tib House of Tea’s East Africa Chai and let it cool. Add all ingredients (including the tea) into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Pour into glass over fresh ice and garnish with a lemon slice. If you don’t have a shaker, add the same ingredients to a pitcher and stir without ice. Store in fridge until chilled and then pour mixture into a glass over fresh ice.