Tuesday Talk: Today With Kate From Ajiri Tea

9:34 AM I used to do many interviews in the past — exchanging with artist friends, rolemodels, or people of whom I thought should be more seen and highlighted.
The last interviews I did were very intriguing to me, because they all dealt with green and sustainable topics. One highlight I like to think of is my chat I u with Kate from Ajiri Tea
I loved connecting with this vibrant heart, good soul, and hard working sunshine! 
I just love falling in love with a meaningful product and the fact that the founders and the people behind the product are real and dedicated. 

I talked about Ajiri Tea, the brand and foundation, but also the African ladies sharing their life experience through it. 
I'm more than in love with Ajiri Tea and that's why I asked Kate some questions so that you can fall in love, too. 

What's Ajiri Tea? Can you tell us a bit about your company?
Ajiri Tea Company sources premium tea and coffee from Kenya. We are a for-profit company, and our primary goal is to create employment for women. In fact, Ajiri means "to employ" in Swahili. We employ around 60 women to handcraft each and every label for the packaging for the tea and coffee boxes. The tea and coffee is grown on predominately small-scale farms in western Kenya, and is all hand-picked. 100% of the profits from the sale of our award-winning products go back to Kenya to pay school fees for orphans. This year we are sponsoring 30 students in school. 

How did your personal relationship with tea start?
My personal relationship with tea started when we started the tea company!  Ajiri Tea was started as a way to create employment for women. In short, we are leveraging the U.S. and European specialty food market to create sustainable employment for women in Kenya. We started way back in 2009, around the same time as the global financial crisis. NGOs were losing funding, leaving many in this region of Kenya reliant on donations. We started Ajiri as a way to create sustainable employment. And since women in developing nations tend to reinvest over 90% of their earnings back into their families and communities, we decided to focus on employing women. At Ajiri, we employ women to craft the labels for our tea boxes using dried bark from banana trees. The women also make a small bracelet inside each tea box.
And Kenyan tea has been a marvelous resource to do just that. Not only do we offer a great mission, but a great product. Our Kenyan black tea, grown in the same region the women are handcrafting the packaging, We have won numerous awards for its strong and smooth flavor. 

How did Ajiri Tea come to life then? 
Sara was volunteering in Kenya for an NGO that lost its funding. After the global financial crisis, we witnessed just how fragile the aid economy can be. The NGO lost its funding, and many were left without a way to pay for the services the NGO was providing. I was visiting Sara at the time, and we were thinking more and more about sustainability and how we could leverage the and diverse economy in the U.S. and the growing specialty food market. Seeing all the lush tea fields around us in Kisii, Kenya, we decided that tea would be an excellent vehicle in which to create employment. Almost ten years later, we are employing 60 women and are currently sponsoring 30 students in school. 

The founders Sara (in the back) and Kate (in the front) 

Women CEOs are underestimated... — how did you prepare yourself for so much responsibilty?
How did we prepare ourselves for so much responsibility? We didn't! Nothing can prepare you! The strongest tool you can be equipped with, is determination. We didn't know how to run a business, let alone import tea. But determination (and lots of caffeine), make anything possible. We are constantly inspired by the resilience of the women and students we work with. Being a women and being a young business owner, has been a challenge both here in the States and in Kenya. We, like most women, have been subject to overt misogyny, and those subtle undercurrents of sexism that you can't quite vocalize, but you can certainly feel. And that is why determination, and believing in yourself and your vision is so important. That determination and self-love was instilled to us by our mother and strong women role-models in my family and community. We hope to impart that same sense of ownership to our young girls that we sponsor. What's even more magical, is that since we started Ajiri Tea, the women who handcraft our packaging are the primary bread-winners. Many of them are seen as leaders in their communities. And that means that a whole new generation of girls are growing up to see their mother's as change-makers---as having more choice and control over their money. 
Is it harder to suceed as women bosses? 

Tell me more about the company. How many people do you employ? They are mostly females, right?
The exact number of women we employ fluctuates (depending on the harvesting season, the opening of their own small businesses, etc.), but on average, we employ around 60 women. The women work in three different groups or regions in Kisii, Kenya. We aim to employ all ages of women. So the women in their 20s through 60s tend to make the labels for the boxes. They cut up dried bark from banana trees with a razor blade, and then paste their designs onto our handmade white paper. These labels are then used for the tea and coffee boxes, and can be removed and saved in each box! The older women who don't quite have the eyesight or dexterity to make the labels, craft a small bracelet that goes inside each tea box. This bracelet is made by twisting dried bark from banana trees to make the twine, and rolled magazines to make the beads. Ajiri is the primary source of income for all of the women we employ. Some of the women have used their earnings from Ajiri to open small-businesses such as a hair salon, or small shop. The women have rented land and bought livestock. Nearly all of the women use a portion of their earnings to pay school fees for either their child, a relative, or a child in the community. The women also participate in micro-savings groups including table-banking and a merry-go-round. These types of savings programs help them to make larger investments. 

What about Ajiri Foundation? What is it exactly?
The Ajiri Foundation is separate from Ajiri Tea Company. The Ajiri Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit. 100% of the profits from Ajiri Tea Company, are donated to the Foundation. That 100% of profits can be a bit confusing. Basically, profits are anything after cost (after we pay for the tea, warehouse space, boxes, salaries, etc.). So anything left over is considered profit. All that profit is donated to our Foundation to pay school fees for orphans. But in reality, we pay a lot more than school fees. We pay for anything our students need to stay in school and thrive in school. That might mean a pair of new shoes, a new notebook, or having someone attend a class conference, a school performance . . . With the help of our trained Ajiri social workers, our students are supported and encouraged. Regina, an Ajiri Field Coordinator, is a mother to all of our students. She makes sure they go to school with everything they need, and that they feel supported when they are at school and at home. In the area we operate in Kenya, there are few orphanages. Usually students stay with extended family members. And most of our students attend boarding schools. (I attached our Ajiri Impact report that talks more about our Foundation. I could blabber on, but our short attached Impact Report covers everything). 

What has been your favorite moment so far with Ajiri?
Favorite moment: Oh gosh, there are just so many. A moment that has stuck with me lately, was from our last Student Day. Every year we have a picnic and field day with games for our students. At the last Student Day (themed the Olympics), one of our former sponsored students, Fanisha, stood up and spoke to our current Ajiri students. She told them to work hard. She told them how she did not do well on her national exam scores, but that a bad score does not define who you are. She said that you are more than your grades--you are more than a number. And she spoke about the power of perseverance. Fanisha is now a doctor, and just graduated from medical school. She gave all of the students her cell phone number and told them to call her if they were ever sick.

I'd also like to know about the tea itself. Could you tell us something about the process? 
The tea is all grown on small-scale farms in Kenya. We source the tea from a cooperative of farmers who own, on average, a quarter acre to two acres of land. The tea is all handpicked--farmers only pick the top two leaves and a bud. 

Which flavors do you currently offer and do you plan on creating more? 
We currently offer our signature Kenyan Black Tea blended with Ginger, Lemon Myrtle, and Mango. We are thinking of offering a classic Earl Grey (Black Tea blended with Bergamont) 

What's your favorite flavor? 
I love our original pure Kenyan Black Tea! 

What exactly makes your coffee and tea so different from other brands? 
The growing process of our tea compared with other brands is quite different. In Kenya, our tea is all grown on small farms--not plantations. Farmers own the land and belong to a cooperative. 
The tea itself is off a very high quality. There is no bitter aftertaste! 

I'd also like to highlight your creative approach to this. Your packaging is super creative and individual. Is packaging important to you? 
Packaging is important to me as a way to create employment. Ajiri means "to employ," and we strive to create sustainable employment for women. We employ 60 women to create each and every label for our tea and coffee boxes. There is no criteria or guidelines for the packaging--the women often depict scenes from everyday life in the labels. You might find a label depicting a woman fetching water, making tea, or picking fruit. Other labels are a bit more whimsical--we have labels that show  people riding elephants, people flying, and people hiding from lions. 

Do you think you can tell us ca. how much work is needed from the early beginnings until the tea box is completely done? 
gThere is so much that goes into each box. The white paper for the labels is made by a man in Kisumu, Kenya. He gathers recycled office paper and mixes it with water hyacinth, an invasive weed on Lake Victoria. We then dries his handmade paper in the sun. We buy it from him and distribute it to the women's groups. The older women also make a small bracelet that goes inside each and every box. They make the beads out of recycled magazines, and the twine or string out of banana bark! 

Where can we get Ajiri Tea? 
You can buy Ajiri Tea in the U.K. at T2Tea. You can also order online! 

Any plans for the future yet?
This Spring our Ajiri scholars will participate in a computer coding camp!

Kate! What a wonderful being you are! I hope you enjoyed this little talk and maybe you are curious to try Ajiri Tea yourself! 
It's summer time — let me share my perfect summer favorite: the black tea with mango, super icy! 
That's my perfect summer!
It's iced tea season. 
Happy slurping to all of you!