A quiet yet significant event for members of the world’s tea trade takes place every year at London’s Savoy Hotel.
For 88 years since the first dinner was held in 1911, it has been a preserve of eminent members of the trade who meet to honour and recognise the role the UK has played in the global tea business.
The only exceptions have been Joe Simrany, the president of the Tea Association of the USA who was invited as guest speaker in 2011 and Aditya Khaitan, managing director of McLeod Russel, the world’s largest private tea producer based in Kolkata, India.
That is why when Kenya Tea Development Agency Chief Executive Lerionka Tiampati got an invite to address the 88th UK Tea Trade Dinner, he could only describe it as “a prank.” He was enjoying his break in January and did not give it much attention.
“I immediately concluded that it was a prank and did not give further thought to the invitation. After all, the UK Tea Dinner for the past 87 years, apart from 2015, has been a purely UK chairmen’s event,” he said.
Mr Tiampati chairs the largest single producer and exporter of tea in the world, bringing together 67 factories, more than 560,000 tea smallholders and more than 12,000 factory staff. Last year, KTDA produced and exported over 270,000 tonnes of tea.
But that did not make him ever think that he would be given such a noble opportunity.
Only on insistence from the organisers did it dawn on him that it was not a prank, after all, but indeed an invitation to an African to preside over the dinner.
Writing for the World Tea News, journalist Barbara Dufrene had a special way to capture the event.
“Even after 88 years of existence there are still firsts, and such was the case, when the Tea Trade Dinner Committee requested Lerionka Tiampati to be the chairman,” she wrote.
By that invite, he became the first African to grace the event as the chairman in the 88-year history of the event. And that needed preparation.
“This was an honour and a challenge that was difficult to let pass. The next step was to find out what exactly chairmen of the event are supposed to speak about,” Mr Tiampati told the chairmen when he finally graced the event.
“The response I received was not exactly re-assuring. I was advised that I could speak about anything and everything under the sun, and this in no more than 28 minutes. At this point, I wished that this was indeed a prank,” he says.
With many government events giving room for speeches of not more than eight minutes, it was going to be a challenge for a man from a strict upbringing in a family background of civil service.
“I thought about what the past 87 chairmen may have spoken about with regard to tea. I concluded that there was probably not much more that has not been previously spoken by these eminent chairmen. And this conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to the end of my speech tonight, thank you all for coming,” Mr Tiampati teased the gathering.
He then proceeded to awe the guests with well-packaged and detailed history of tea from its original discovery in China by Emperor Shen Nung around 2737 BC to date.
Mr Tiampati delved into the discovery of black tea due to its longer lasting leaf to find ways of coping with the long sea route to Europe, which resulted in deterioration of the existing variety of tea.
“Is it not remarkable that we have been gathering here at the Savoy Hotel for the past 88 years, brought together by the love for the most widely consumed universal beverage in the world? As famously stated, it warms us when we are cold and cools us when we are hot,” he remarked.