Specialty Food Magazine


Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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Sara Holby, Ajiri Tea T he name of this company means "to employ" in Swahili, which Ajiri does by hiring Kenyan women to create the handmade labels on its tea and coffee packaging. But that's just the beginning. Inspiration Sara Holby, 27, studied African history at Bowdoin College in Maine and spent a semester of her junior year in Kenya. It was a family tradition: her mother, two aunts, and two uncles had also studied in Kenya. Her stay culminated in a volunteer project work- ing with HIV/AIDS patients in the Kisii District of western Kenya. She returned the following year working for the same organization, giving out food and medicine. The U.S. financial crisis of 2008 meant donations to the organization dried up. Holby had to turn away people who were in desperate need, so the inspiration for Ajiri Tea was to help create a sustainable source of funds. "I decided to create employment in the area instead of giving handouts," she says. She talked to her mother, Ann, and her sister, Kate, about forming a company that would draw on the artistic tal- ents of the women of Kisii who were capable of creating beautiful, handmade labels for packaging. "Selling tea was the means to an end," Holby says. "We came at it backwards." By spring 2009 the business had a co-op of farmers lined up to hand-pick the tea, and local women gathered to make the labels. The products started sell- ing in Pennsylvania and New Jersey–area stores that fall. "The tea itself is really good tea and the story is pretty great," Holby says of customers' instant positive response. Ajiri Tea is now carried in 450 stores across the country. Impact The women of Kisii, some of them widows, some with HIV, can make labels for Ajiri from home so they're still able to care for their families. The company employs 63 local women, who individually hand-make each label, featuring motifs of wild animals and everyday village life. Not only have many of the women opened bank accounts for the first time in their lives, they've formed so-called 'merry-go- round' savings groups. Each woman contributes $15 to a fund that goes to one woman every so often in a lump sum. New roofs, live- stock, and school fees have been paid for this way. Holby also established the Ajiri Foundation, which pays school fees for children from the tea farming community who have lost at least one parent. The program currently sponsors 14 primary school students and 15 high-schoolers. The Future Two students recently graduated from high school, thanks to the Ajiri Foundation. They each received a laptop and currently are attending college. Holby wants to instill similar educational aspirations among her employees. "One of my dreams is to talk to the women about literacy and small business ideas," she says. "And I'm hoping to teach some of them to use a computer." Not only have many of the Kenyan women employed by Ajiri Tea opened bank accounts for the frst time in their lives, they've formed so-called 'merry-go-round' savings groups that have helped fund families' new roofs, livestock, and school fees. 2015 LEADERSHIP AWARD: CITIZENSHIP 26 ❘ SPECIALTY FOOD MAGAZINE specialtyfood.com

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