When Tea Can Change the World



Since I got back from my holiday, I have been showing everyone my new bag and going “it’s made out of tea bags. TEA BAGS! My BAG is made out of tea BAGS! My bag is MADE out of TEA bags!” People have mainly been politely interested about this, and not too many have backed away slowly, which is nice of them. But my bag really is made out of tea bags, and you too could buy one; and if you do, you would be actually be contributing to a local economy that could really benefit from your support. AND you’d get an awesome TEA BAG BAG. Let me introduce you to one of the best experiences on my recent trip to South Africa to visit my mother…

We had one day in Cape Town to spend together before she had to go back to her town and three days before my flight. We packed as much in to that one day together, with her showing me all the changes at the waterfront since my last visit and just enjoying our rare time together. We walked past a little shop in the V&A Waterfront’s “Watershed”, a redevelopment since I was last there, which hosts small creative businesses. The shop was called “Original Tea Bag design”, and Mum told me that they made everything using tea bags as a design canvas. Obviously I was interested, and wanted to know more. While we had a last drink together in the sunset we looked at a map to make plans for my last few days of solo exploring and realised that one of Cape Town’s red bus tours that goes all around the peninsula stopped at the Original Tea Bag designs factory, and that even better, your bus ticket entitled you to a free cup of tea. “ooh brilliant, you can’t beat a free cup of tea”  I said,  and my mum had a giggling fit. I can’t imagine why.

The day started very misty, which usually means it’s going to be very hot. The strong winds blowing through the “apostles” on Table Mountain are very strong and can catch the sun before you’ve even realised you’re burning.  I spent the morning exploring Kirstenbosch gardens, and by the time I left the bus the mist had boiled away and the sun was at full strength – unseasonably hot for Autumn, all the locals were saying – and I was windswept and a little sunburned. No one else who left the bus came to the Tea Bag factory; four others had walked the other way to take a tour of Imizamo Yethu, the “informal settlement” (also known as townships) in Hout Bay so I was on my own as I set off down the road on my tea-adventure.

I knew very little about Original Tea Bag designs, other than mum’s brief description, and she’d never been out to therooseveltfactory factory. I had no idea what to expect. On arrival, a lovely lady called Rachel greeted me, and offered me a cup of tea. Hooray! Rachel explained that for all first time visitors there was a short DVD to watch before they gave me a tour of their premises. She handed me my tea and played the DVD.

It took about 3 minutes for me to get emotional, and about 5 before I was holding back tears, and maybe 7 before I was full on crying. Original Tea Bag Designs was set up by a British woman called Jill Heyes who moved to South Africa about 10 years before my mum did. She was struck by the poverty and the struggles of the people in nearby Imizamo Yethu and wanted to help. Enter:  the humble tea bag. After a few false starts Jill realised that used tea bags, emptied and dried, made perfect little canvasses on which local women could paint original designs. These are then used to create “functional art”; beautiful artworks, decorations, coasters, trays and all sorts of beautiful and useful products. The products took off – being beautifully made, suitably quirky and the sort of wonderful creativity that seems to abound in South Africa – and the company was able to employ more local local people. The income generated from their work has helped so many. I felt a deep affinity for Jill, and the women and men working here, and when the phrase “tea can change the world” floated out of the documentary I gave up holding in my tears.

It was hard to explain why I was so emotional – here was another woman who had found a way to help make the world a little better than it was before inspired by a cup of tea. I wondered whether I should try to explain this to Rachel as she showed me around afterwards, but felt tongue tied and lost for words. The factory is small, but has just enough space for the people who work at Original Tea Bag Design to make their products. It’s a very professional arrangement, but you really feel the family vibe, the sense of community and the love that is poured into every piece of work.

rooseveltjillAs I was browsing the shop after the tour, I met Jill Heyes herself, who was in the small office just next to the shop. I introduced myself, she noticed I was from Britain. I explained that, like her, my mum had moved over to South Africa and, like her, was involved in projects designed to help her local community. And then I decided to tell her why I got so emotional over the idea that “tea can change the world.” Immediately she went to google “tea consent” and watched the animation in her office. It is a strange experience to watch it with other people around, an odd mixture of  excruciating embarrassment tinged with pride.  Jill and I had a bit of “a moment”. Two women, halfway across the world, both changing the world almost by accident through the power of tea. Once again, I was holding back tears.

Jill felt that it would be such an important message in South Africa where sexual violence is a huge problem. She asked if I had any translated versions, in Xhosa for example. I don’t yet, but just before I left for my trip the City of Cape Town has requested permission to use the video on their new site, and asked if they could translate it into both Afrikaans and Xhosa.  Hopefully this will come to pass, as it could make a big difference to sexual violence prevention in South Africa. It really hit home to me when Jill said that almost every woman who had worked in the shop would probably be all too familiar with the message in the video; that sexual violence is so normalised in many parts of South Africa that sometimes it’s hard for victims and perpetrators to even recognise when it has occurred, and she hoped that when the Xhosa translation becomes available she can show it to all of her staff.

I went a little mad in the shop because I just wanted everything. What special mementoes, and how perfect and fitting a gift for the person who had originally made me the cup of tea that led to my comment that “she made me a cup of tea at her house last Saturday. That doesn’t mean she can come around any time she likes and force tea down my throat going YOU WANTED IT LAST WEEK” that inspired “tea consent” in the first place. I bought one of the bags Rachel had showed me earlier that she had designed – the woman at the till shouted with glee “Rachel! Your bag is going to London” and Rachel did a happy little dance. I have already had a few comments about it, and my excited declaration that it was “made out of tea bags” has met with more than one puzzled stare. But it is, in fact, made out of tea bags. By wonderful people in a beautiful but struggling part of the world.rooseveltimpossibletildone

If you would like to help out, aside from purchasing their wonderful products, you can also send them your tea bags! There are instructions on how to dry and empty your used tea bags on their website. They also accept unused teabags past their sell-by date. A much better idea than binning them or composting them, and each cup of tea you have can be transformed into a beautiful piece of art which then helps boost the local economy – all for the cost of postage. It’s win all round, why wouldn’t you? I am going to start collecting teabags and make a collection to send over – and if you think that Original Tea Bag design are doing wonderful work, please consider doing the same. If you work in an office where everyone drinks tea, suggest this to them. It’s just a tiny tea bag, but it has the potential to change someone’s world.

You can follow Original Tea Bag designs on Facebook

The story of Original Tea Bag Design (the one that made me cry)

A piece from SABC News about the company, featuring an interview with Rachel. (This also made me cry.)

Send them your tea bags!




  1. “Two women, halfway across the world, both changing the world almost by accident through the power of tea.” Self-aggrandizing humblebrag of the year?

    1. I deleted and rewrote and deleted and rewrote it so many times. It’s very hard to put into words how it felt, perhaps it didn’t come across terribly well!

  2. I disagree with the previous comment this was an ahaaa! Genious moment for everyone that just proves the point of just how important tea is to so many of us. American tea party notwithstanding.

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