The Ajiri Tea Company: What's in a Name?


Ajiri (v): definition: to employ; origin: Kenya [Swahili, national language].

It’s always really interesting to uncover new social initiatives – and all the more when young people are at the heart of them.  And so, when a friend told me a little about the Ajiri Tea Company – a business selling Kenyan tea in the American marketplace, set up by twenty-three year old Sara Holby from New England - I was intrigued.  The company employs 63 women from the Kisii district in western Kenya to produce the handmade labels and decorative features of each box of tea, which is then sold both online and in stores in America.   All profits generated from the tea go directly to the Ajiri Foundation – a sister fund which has been set up to pay for the education of orphans living in the Kisii area.  Last year, the Foundation paid for six children to go to school, covering costs for their fees, uniforms and books.


Whilst the rosy side of this an initiative is clear for everyone to see, I have no doubt that there are many skeptical people out there who think there must be more to it.  I can’t blame them really – most companies operating overseas are very focused on their ‘corporate social responsibility’ image – often a deplorable attempt to justify terrible working conditions and environmental damage.  So, for this reason, I was keen to interview Sara to find out more…

There must have been a key motivating factor which drove you to set up a company half way across the world – can you explain what that was?

I studied in Kenya during my junior year of college, and, after graduating, I went back for a year to volunteer for an HIV/AIDS NGO.  Half way through my placement, the NGO received news of funding cuts, and they were forced to close. This meant that the patients no longer had access to food or to medicine, and all the staff who had been employed there were out of a job.  It made me realize that whilst the NGO had been great in helping people in the short term, it had not helped them to support themselves in the long-term. That’s what motivated me to set up the Ajiri Tea Company and the Ajiri Foundation, and what also encouraged my mom, Ann, to come on board.  To be perfectly honest, we didn’t know a thing about business or tea - we launched into it rather blindly, but with a distinct vision to allow locals to make a sustainable living for themselves, and with the added impetus of putting all profits directly back into the same community. 

So what kind of reception do you get as a Western white woman running a local Kenyan organization? What kind of relationship does that make for between you and the locals?

I'm not single-handedly running a Kenyan organization. The Kenyan side of things is managed by Nick Miyogo – one of my co-workers from the NGO I went to Kenya to volunteer with.   Nick’s a local so he knows what’s going on and can keep an eye on things -the women that Ajiri employs really work with Nick on a day to day basis, not me or my mother.

Actually, being a western white woman was something I was really conscious of when we were setting up the business. I didn't want the Ajiri Tea Company and Foundation to be another Western initiative giving hand outs to local people, and that is not what it is. The women are doing valuable work and we are paying them to do it.  As a result, they don’t feel like they are receiving hand outs from us – they know that the company wouldn't succeed without them. Our role in the process is to facilitate the sustainable cycle – selling the product in the US and making the money to employ the women and educate the children.

It’s great that you use the profits to educate local organs.  But is that after you have drawn a full time salary from your work at Ajiri Tea - and your mother too? 

No, neither of us draw a salary from Ajiri Tea. The hope is that someday in the future I will be able to live off of the Tea Company, but definitely not for a while.  Our priority is to employ the local women and generate enough money to send local children to school – not to make money for ourselves. I'm living at home right now, where I spend the majority of my timetalking to stores, asking if they will carry Ajiri Tea, and trying to raise awareness about the product.   My mom concentrates on the business side of things – she works on the finances, comes up with new ideas and keeps the whole initiative on track.


What labour and environmental standards do you adhere to?

The tea itself is Rainforest Alliance certified. While it is not certified organic, the farmers use no pesticides in growing the tea. In terms of working with the women to make the labels, we don't have any specific certifications. However, I personally know each of the 63 women that we employ, and I’m very confident that our product is "fairly traded" -  the price set for the production of each label was determined by the women and by Nick, and we know that the money they have managed to earn has improved their standard of living. One of the women even bought a cow with her earnings!

How often do you visit the sites or intend to visit them over the coming years?

I spent last year in Kisii, and set up two women's groups while I was there. Since then, we have increased to five women's groups. My mom and I went back to Kisii this spring to meet with all the women's groups, to show them the final product that they were working to produce everyday, and generally just to check in.  I hope to visit Kisii for a week or two every year, just to keep in touch with the people working on the ground.  

For those looking to emulate your operations, is there anything you would caution against doing?

That's a tricky question. We have had problems in Kenya – mostly with other people – men - wanting to get involved and "manage" the women we employ. For people looking to set up an initiative like Ajiri, I would caution against trusting any one individual until you get to know them very well, which is almost impossible unless you spend a significant amount of time in the country you want to set up in before going ahead.  It’s also really important to ensure that there’s a genuine interest and need for the initiative within the community, and that the local people are passionate about it – then it should be sustainable.The Ajiri Tea Company and Ajiri Foundation are distinct from many NGOs because we don’t rely on donations. It is through the women’s work that we are able to produce the product that we sell in the US and make the money to support the children.

And finally, how do you measure 'success' for Ajiri tea/foundation?

Success is a difficult thing to measure.  In some ways, I feel we have already succeeded because last year, we sent six orphans to school, and we are currently employing 63 local women to make a living for themselves – all of these women were previously unemployed.  However, we are far from complacent, and we know that the more boxes of tea we sell, the more profits we will make to send orphans to school through the Ajiri Foundation.  We want to expand the company more, get the tea into as many stores in the US as possible, and make sure people continue to re-order and purchase the tea. In doing so, we are ensuring steady work for the women in Kenya, and hope to continue to grow the number of women working for us.  Our measure of ‘success’ will continue to grow with the company!


Fair Trade, Kenya, Labor, NGO, Unemployment