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Bucks County's Ajiri Tea offers hope for Kenyan women and orphans

The business, run from Upper Black Eddy by the Holby sisters with their mother, now employs 63 female artisans making labels in four villages. It then applies those labels to boxes of Kenyan coffee and tea.

The Ajiri Tea team includes (from left) Kate Holby, Regina Oyugi, Sara Holby, and Duncan Mochache.
The Ajiri Tea team includes (from left) Kate Holby, Regina Oyugi, Sara Holby, and Duncan Mochache.Read more

In 2008, the economic crisis that crashed down on Wall Street and rippled around the globe eventually washed over the impoverished Kisii region of Kenya, where Sara Holby, then 21, was volunteering for a nonprofit that provided food and medicine to HIV/AIDS patients. It swept away the organization's funding almost overnight.

"When people came to the office looking for help every day, we basically had nothing to offer them," recalled Holby, who is from Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County.

She knew she had to find a solution, and a sustainable one, not dependent on the whims of grant-makers.

While her sister, Kate, then an 18-year-old college freshman, was visiting, they found one - in the form of a handmade card decorated with dried banana bark for sale at a local market. They thought the technique could be incorporated into product packaging, as a means of job creation for women in Kisii.

That idea was the basis for Ajiri - Swahili for "to employ" - a company with a social mission.

The business, run from Upper Black Eddy by the Holby sisters, Sara, 28, and Kate, 25, with their mother, Ann Funkhouser, now employs 63 female artisans making labels in four villages. It then applies those labels to boxes of Kenyan coffee and tea, and distributes them through 500 retailers in the United States, Europe and Australia. All profits are directed to the Ajiri Foundation, which pays for school fees and expenses for 29 orphans in the region.

Ajiri's flagship product is Kenyan black tea, grown by farmers on one- to two-acre plots of land in the Kisii region and processed at a cooperative factory there.

"The goal of the company was to create employment, and tea was sort of a means to the end," Sara Holby said. "But, it turns out, it's really wonderful tea."

That's fortunate, considering that in 2009, Kate and Sara knew almost nothing about tea when they began knocking on the gates of tea factories, seeking a partner.

"The one factory that opened up its doors, it seemed like we were Charlie and it was Willie Wonka opening up the doors," Kate Holby said. "As young girls, it was hard to be taken seriously. But Pauline Oyugi, who was one of the only woman factory managers for the Kenyan Tea Development Agency, took us in and told us about the tea business."

They learned that the region's volcanic soil and rainy climate are conducive to tea-growing, and that all the tea there is handpicked, which is good for quality control. Ajiri's tea has won awards at the North American Tea Championship.

Since then, they've added lemon tea, South African rooibos and coffee, which is purchased at auction in Kenya, shipped to the U.S., and roasted locally to order.

The made-in-Kenya packaging, though, is what gets shoppers' attention.

Each label starts with a sheet of paper handmade from water hyacinth, an invasive plant removed from Kenya's Lake Victoria, and used office paper. The blank labels are then delivered to women's groups, which distribute them to members. Then, the women create their own designs, cutting out trees, animals and houses from dried banana-tree bark and other upcycled materials. Older women whose eyesight isn't as sharp make twine and beads used to tie up the packages of tea bags.

Women are paid by the label, and can work at home when they have time, between caring for their children or other jobs. Sara Holby said most make $40 to $200 a month. She said that's more than the $1 a day that they'd make as day-laborers on tea farms there.

The impact has been striking, according to Duncan Mochache, a 26-year-old trained social worker who is Ajiri's first full-time Kenyan staff member.

He said obstacles in this part of western Kenya include extreme poverty, gender inequality, alcohol abuse among men, and girls being married off as young as age 12.

International development agencies often cite the statistic that women invest 90 cents of every dollar they make back into their families and communities.

Mochache said that seems to be the case in Kisii. Many of the women previously lived in leaky mud huts, he said. "Some of the houses were about to fall down. Because of poverty, they could not even buy the clay to maintain their mud houses."

Recently, he surveyed the women and found that all of them had used the income from Ajiri to improve their family's quality of life over the last year, constructing new houses out of sheet metal or repairing their existing dwellings.

"They've connected electricity in their homes. They've bought cows and they sell the extra milk. And they've taken their children to school," he said. Some women are raising chickens, while others have started savings groups. All have opened bank accounts.

Now, the sisters' goal is to keep expanding, so they can employ more women and educate more kids.

Since 2009, the Ajiri Foundation has spent about $64,000 on the students - books, uniforms, school fees, school supplies, and more, according to Funkhouser.

Kate Holby said Ajiri, started with $15,000 in seed money from Funkhouser, is now bringing in $225,000 a year and growing 30 percent a year. From 2012 to 2013, they were able to give $33,804 of that to the foundation.

But, she said, "it's been a challenge, looking for ways to grow, because no one would really want to invest in a company that gives all its profits to a nonprofit."

So, they're hoping to drum up around $40,000 with a Kickstarter campaign that would launch in June. Those funds would cover the cost of creating individual paper envelopes for tea bags, a necessary step in order to expand sales into food-service settings.

Of course, no matter how big Ajiri grows, it can't solve all the problems in this region, Sara Holby acknowledged.

"There's a lot of needs there, and we've chosen to work on education," she said. "We're hoping the people we're educating can help to change their own society."