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In Rural Kenya, Women Swap Charity for Tea Boxes

At first, decorating boxes for the Ajiri Tea Company simply helped women in Kenya’s Kisii region shed their reliance on handouts. Now the women are using their salaries to help each other fix leaky roofs and put their children through school.

Written by Alexandra Bradford Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The Ajiri Tea Company sources its tea from plantations in Western Kenya, and then employs women in the Kisii region to create designs for the boxes. AP/Ben Curtis

Sara Holby may have grown up in Pennsylvania, but Kenya was always part of her life. “My mother and my aunts and uncles all studied abroad there during their college years,” Holby says. “I grew up listening to stories about the adventures my family members had in Kenya, and so I probably always had a love for the country.”

When it came time to choose the destination for her study abroad program during her junior year at college, Holby headed for Kenya’s Kisii region to volunteer for an organization that provided food and medical handouts to the locals. Then the global financial crisis hit and the NGO lost all of its funding. She found herself turning away people who came to pick up food and medical supplies.

“I realized there was a big need here and it wasn’t for handouts,” Holby says. “The people we were providing for didn’t want to rely on handouts, they wanted to work. There just weren’t any employment opportunities in the region.”

Grabbing the chance to give back to the country her family had fallen in love with, Holby, now 29, joined with her younger sister Kate to create the Ajiri Tea company in 2009. Ajiri – which is Swahili for “employ” – produces tea from leaves grown in Western Kenya. The tea is then packaged in boxes decorated by women living in the same Kisii region where Holby volunteered.

Now the company employs 60 women who have found ways to increase their income with lending circles they created themselves. Holby, who is back in the U.S. but employs Kisii locals to oversee the company’s day-to-day operations, spoke with Women & Girls Hub about how beautiful boxes can provide a livelihood and lead to a cycle of self-sufficiency.

Women & Girls Hub: Through Ajiri, you work to promote female employment in Kenya. Why is this important to you?

Sara Holby: It’s important to note that we do not have a “workshop” or “factory” where the women come to work. They work from home, and there is no set time that they are required to be working. Their work with Ajiri is balanced with their other commitments – caring for their families, working on their farms, etc. We give them a cap on the number of labels they can make each month, and while they usually hit this number, there are certainly times of year – like planting and harvest season – when they focus less on Ajiri.

Statistically, it has been proven that when women work, they invest their income into their communities. We have found this to be so true with the women we employ. We are able to make a bigger impact because we have found that the women don’t just keep their pay for themselves, they invest the money into their families. We also found that the women have started a couple of savings programs that I am really excited about.

Women & Girls Hub: How do the savings programs work?

Holby: About a year and half ago, the women started doing merry-go-rounds. This is a savings program where the women divide themselves into groups of five, and every month they each contribute $5 of their pay to one specific woman. This helps the women afford bigger investments because they are getting extra money in addition to their pay from Ajiri.

The latest project they are doing is something called table banking. The women come together every month and they put part of their earnings onto a table. That money is lent out to one member of the group. For instance, if one of the women needs to buy seeds, a roof for her home or pay school fees, she can be loaned the money from the group and then she pays it back with 10 percent interest. The interest then comes back to the group and at the end of the year that interest is divided up among everyone so that they are making profits off one another.

Women & Girls Hub: The women you employ make the labels for your tea boxes. Tell me about their creative process.

Holby: The creative process is my favorite part because we don’t dictate to the women how to design the labels. We want them to have freedom to be creative. At the start of every month, the women collect banana bark that has fallen from trees in the fields near their homes. They scrape the bark down so that it is very thin, then cut designs out of the bark. Normally they create pictures that depict things they observe in their daily life, such as children playing on seesaws, people working in fields or images of domestic life such as mothers making tea.

Some of the women we employ are older and they don’t have the dexterity to make the designs, so instead we have them make beads by rolling old magazine paper around a toothpick or make twine by twisting banana bark, which we then use as a decorative tie inside every box.

The designs, cut out of banana bark, often depict scenes of daily life. (Francesca Pagni for Storm and Whale)
The designs, cut out of banana bark, often depict scenes of daily life. (Francesca Pagni for Storm and Whale)

Women & Girls Hub: What impact do you think you have made in Kenya through Ajiri Tea?

Holby: We now have 60 women working for us in Kenya and we are looking to grow over the coming years. We sell our tea in over 700 stores around the world, and all of the profit we make gets donated back to Kenya through our Ajiri Foundation. We set up the foundation to pay for the school fees of orphans in Kenya. This year, the foundation has paid for 28 students to attend school. We are also really excited because three of our previous students are now attending university.

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