Greening my tea!
I hate to think how many times I boil the kettle every day to make one cup of tea after another …. or how many half-drunk mugs of tea lurk beneath the piles of paper on my desk. Today I decided I needed to start doing things differently, so my action for Day 4 of A Year in a Day was to explore how to ‘green my tea’.
There are a few issues … the actual tea bags I’ve been going through and discarding; the source of the tea; and the waste of energy every time I boil the kettle again.
Blue Mountains City Council recently made a gorgeous little animation about this very issue, encouraging us to not fill the kettle every time we boiled it because it wasted way too much energy:
Today, I decided to go one step further, and discovered that my stovetop kettle holds enough water to fill two thermoses. I boiled the kettle once, filled both thermoses, and have been enjoying delicious tea all day, both at work and at home. Quite a win/win – I saved money and energy (mine and the type damaging our environment).
I also planted a lemon verbena tree and some mint in the demonstration ‘living with wildlife’ garden I’m creating at the Planetary Health site at the old Katoomba Golf Clubhouse. Here’s the list of the plants that don’t need netting if you missed our earlier blog.
After planting them both, I sat and enjoyed a freshly picked lemon verbena tea on the spot … it was so fabulous to not have to go inside and boil another kettle!
That brings us to the other aspect of tea consumption … sometimes Lemon Verbena and mint don’t cut it and you need a good strong cup of ‘real’ tea!
When I first shared the concept of taking a daily action for A Year in a Day, in the Planetary Health Newsletter, Vicki Edmunds was the very first person to respond with this fabulous article she wrote about sustainable tea production in Kenya. I’m off now to order some!
I’m really looking forward to learning more from everyone else who shares an action on this blog …. can’t wait for the day that 365 of us are all taking an action on the same day and we can progress planetary health restoration at the rate of a whole year in one day!
Sustainable tea production in Kenya – just my cup of tea
by Vicki Edmunds
Manager Community, Library and Customer Services
Blue Mountains City Council
The kettle whistled in the kitchen on a cold winter’s day. I do love a good cup of tea. Everyone knows this about me. I love the ceremony of it – boiling the water, adding the tea leaves to the teapot, letting it draw, turning the teapot three times anti-clockwise before pouring. We all have our own rituals with drinking tea. My brother gave me a new tea to try one Christmas. “Try this tea”, he said, “you will love the taste and it’s got a great backstory”. I threw the tea into the cupboard, where it stayed. Then I ran out of my normal tea and reached for it in the cupboard. My brother had been asking me if I had used the tea he gave me. “You won’t regret it. Let me know what you think”. Okay, I thought, today is the day.
Lifting the cup to my lips I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting a run-of-the-mill tea – mass-produced and missing heart and flavour. This tea even smelt amazing and fresh. The taste danced over my tongue leaving a satisfying after-taste. Could this be the tastiest tea I have ever had? Pretty close. I grabbed the packaging and inside found a card, with the “great backstory” my brother had mentioned.
Ajiri tea dates back to 2008, when one of its founders, Sara Holby went to western Kenya as a volunteer with a food and medicine distribution NGO that specialised in helping community with HIV/AIDS. After five months of volunteering, the global financial recession hit, and the international sponsorship of this program ceased. Sara’s sister Kate then visited her in Kenya, where they both witnessed the detrimental side of aid dependence, and what happens to people’s lives when that aid is no longer available. With the help of their mother, the three of them decided to start a company to create sustainable employment. They started a tea company, as it is a major industry in western Kenya. They also realised that women tend to reinvest the majority of their earnings back into their families, so they chose to only employ women to hand-make the tea boxes, the labels and the twines that became part of the distinctive packaging. Not stopping there, they wanted to create a fully sustainable cycle with this enterprise. Education is a sustainable investment, so 100% of the net profits of Ajiri tea go back into Kenya to pay school fees for orphans.
Having learnt briefly about the tea backstory, I went searching for more information and found that Ajiri means “to employ” in Swahili. Currently, the Ajiri Tea Company employs sixty women to handcraft the packaging for the tea boxes. Each label is uniquely created using dried bark from banana trees. Using inspiration from daily life, designs are cut and glued onto handmade paper. Inside the box, the women create colourful beads using recycled magazines. They cut long strips of magazines and then roll them around a toothpick, varnish then dry them in the afternoon sun. The beads are then threaded onto handmade twine. This twine is made using long pieces of banana tree bark twisted together.
Ajiri tea is sourced from a cooperative of farmers in western Kenya, grown on small-scale shambas, or farms. On average, each shamba is only a quarter to two acres of land. All of the tea is handpicked – only the top two leaves and a bud – ensuring the high quality leaves. The high altitude, abundant rainfall, and fertile volcanic soils make this area of Kenya, an ideal tea-growing region.
One hundred percent of the profits are donated to the Ajiri Foundation for orphan education – to pay school fees and provide programming for orphans. The Ajiri Foundation does not run an orphanage or school. They send students to local schools. Secondary students attend boarding schools. Primary students attend a mix of boarding and day schools depending on their home environment and support systems. In addition to paying for school fees and living supplies, the Foundation provides enrichment programs to promote critical thinking skills, computer skills, confidence, team building, environmental stewardship (volunteer tree planting in local communities) and mentoring. There are currently thirty students in twenty-two different schools benefiting from this program. (Ajiri Foundation Impact Report, 2020 p. 4)
The Ajiri Tea Company and the Ajiri Foundation are guided by a common goal – to help lift vulnerable communities out of poverty by providing opportunities. The tea company focuses on employment for women and the Foundation concentrates on the education of orphans. The separate organisations allows for transparency and progress tracking.
This prompted me to learn more about the tea industry in Kenya. Tea was introduced into Kenya by G.W. Caine, a European settler in Limuru near Nairobi in 1903. (Wamalwa, B.P. p. 158) Kenya is now the third largest producer and exporter of tea in the world, holding a market share of 23%. (Wamalwa, B.P. p.158). The global tea industry is concentrated mainly in four trans-national companies, two of which are key stakeholders in Kenya – Unilever and James Finley. However, the tea production sector is dominated by small scale producers that own approximately 4-8 hectares of land, which may not be entirely dedicated to tea production. Small farmers account for more than 60% of the sector, while estates are less than 40%. This is achieved by the support of the Kenyan government who own production facilities that process the tea. (Mwangi, G.M, Despoudi, S., Espindola, O.R., Spanaki, K., Papadopoulos, T. p.13). The support by government shows the importance of tea to the Kenyan economy. Agriculture contributes an estimated 26% of the gross domestic product and more than 80% employment of the population. (Mwangi, G.M, Despoudi, S., Espindola, O.R., Spanaki, K., Papadopoulos, T. p.13). It must be noted at this point, that despite the importance of tea production to Kenya, there are challenges to the sector that need to be considered for long term sustainability and resilience of this industry. Poor and ageing infrastructure, high production costs, declining global tea prices, insufficient research into the industry and climate change all feature as challenges. Kenyan tea is mostly gown in areas with a temperate climate, tropical volcanic soils and a rainfall distribution of between 1200mm to 1400mm per annum. (Wamalwa, B.P. p. 158) Unfavourable weather conditions are stifling the production of key crops – drought, extreme rain, hail – and has impacted tea production in a number of ways.
Excessive rain will freeze the roots of the tea leaves, hail will destroy the leaves and too much heat will also lead to low production. Landslides from too much rain will cause the farms to slide in the hilly topography, causing damage their own farm and to neighbours. Soil erosion from too much rain will cause the fertilisers used by farmers, to enter the river systems and leave no benefit behind in the farms. Water is rationed during hot weather and may not be sufficient to water the tea. Some farmers have been implementing water management systems and hold certifications from the Rain Forest Alliance to acknowledge their work in saving water or using it more efficiently. (Mwangi, G.M, Despoudi, S., Espindola, O.R., Spanaki, K., Papadopoulos, T. p.18-19).
It does appear that Kenyan tea farmers are working towards sustainability and resilience as a response to changing climatic conditions. Mitigating the impacts of these issues is critical for tea production to continue to be a major economic contributor for the country. However, another consideration is becoming important in global markets. Being able to trace a product back to the site to where it was first produced, assures the consumer that food safety, quality and ethical standards are being upheld at every stage of the products journey. Traceability of products is now very important to consumers. They are willing to pay a premium for this assurance and thus, sustainable sourcing has become a valuable add-on for brand owners. Plus, sustainable sourcing recognises that a company’s entire supply chain can make a significant impact in promoting human rights, fair labour practices, environmental considerations and anti-corruption policies (United Nations Global Compact). It is this aspect of the Ajiri tea company that builds trust with the consumer with regards to the tea, the supply chain and the values of the organisation.
Having found out the great backstory of this tea, I made it my mission to share my knowledge and this tea became my “go-to” gift. I became like a messiah, trying to convert everyone to my new tea and sustainable ethics. It wasn’t until one of my friends called me a couple of months after my latest round of gift-giving at Christmas, with the words I was waiting to hear. “You know that tea you gave me for Christmas? I think it might be the best I have had in years. Where can I get some more?”
I gladly handed over the details and finished the conversation with, “Not only is it tasty, it has a great backstory….”
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