Bike maker empowering farmers 

JusTea provides farmers with tools to process their own tea, and earn greater revenue share

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - TEA TIME Grayson Bain (right) founded Rocky Mountain Bicycles is now helping Kenyan tea farmers like Davison (left) to improve their returns.
  • PHOTO SUBMITTED
  • TEA TIME Grayson Bain (right) founded Rocky Mountain Bicycles is now helping Kenyan tea farmers like Davison (left) to improve their returns.

In the cutthroat world of business, a company's bottom line can often come before social responsibility.

But Vancouver entrepreneur and JusTea founder Grayson Bain doesn't live by that mantra, instead focusing on individual relationships over profit. It's a strategy that is the norm in Kenya, where Bain is helping local farmers process their own tea and earn a just return for their hard work.

"One of the things we found in most developing situations is that relationship always trumps contract," said Bain, who founded Rocky Mountain Bicycles in 1981. "It's generally by relationships that you gain trust, and through that trust you can develop business together."

It's a personal connection that inspired Bain to create JusTea in 2012, after having met a Kenyan tea farmer named Davison, one of 500,000 working in a country that is the third largest producer of tea in the world, with 370 million kilograms produced in 2012 alone, and the single largest exporter of black tea.

Bain was working with a charity in the East African nation at the time, and was trying to identify opportunities to provide assistance that went beyond just development.

"My trip to Kenya was to try and discover what comes after development, because if you keep doing development then people become dependent on that aid and that aid dollar in a sense holds the community up without it becoming self sufficient," he said.

After a chance meeting at the market, Davison invited Bain back to his tea plantation to view his crop and learn more about the tea-making process. Something about Davison stuck with the entrepreneur, and only a few days later Bain was back on the plantation, sharing a meal of tea and cassava with the farmer.

"I really wanted to go back to that tea farm because (Davison) seemed intriguing, he seemed like he had some kind of interest in doing more for himself than what he was being offered," Bain said.

Even though processing drastically increases the value of tea, Kenyan farmers typically earn only $2 a day, about one per cent of the total value of the finished product. Bain soon wondered why Kenyan farmers simply couldn't process the tea themselves, and began developing a plan in late 2012 to create a non-profit business that produced tea right at the farm gate. Out of that vision, JusTea was born and a small processing kitchen was established with the help of a group of volunteers, with production beginning in December 2013.

The small facility is operated by locals and currently employs eight Kenyans in an area where around 70 per cent of the population is jobless, Bain said. The farmers now earn around $5 a day.

Unfortunately, the Kenyan government's tight grip on the tea sector means that Bain and his team aren't currently permitted to export the tea that's processed by hand at their facility, which is instead sold in-country or used for research. As a result, JusTea sources their products from a factory that makes a high-quality end product, Bain said. He's hopeful to begin exporting the handmade tea in the coming months.

The non-profit also puts around half of their revenues back into the tea kitchen, with the long-term vision of establishing a farmer-owned tea-processing co-op that would sell its product exclusively through JusTea. Bain is also hoping to possibly expand the co-op concept to other agricultural products in Kenya.

"We just feel like if we're not partnering with these farmers, if they're not actually part of the partnership and we're not looking at them eye to eye... then I don't think we've succeeded entirely with what we're trying to do," said Bain. "Sure we may be giving them employment and we may be giving them skills but what we actually want to give them is ownership."

JusTea offers four varieties of tea from their online store, or for pick-up at their Vancouver office, including African chai and Kathryne Earl Grey. Bain said even the machine-processed tea coming from Kenya is exceptional, and described the handmade tea he's had the chance to sample as "being on another level entirely." With tea consumption in Canada expected to rise 40 per cent by 2020, according to a Canadian Food Trends report, Bain expects "there's going to be a really great market for both teabag tea and also for loose leaf."

JusTea relies heavily on volunteers, and hosts a volunteer day at their East Third Avenue office every Tuesday, where people can help sort 200-kilogram bags of tea or deliver tea to a nearby facility for blending. Email info@justea.com in advance to take advantage of these volunteer opportunities.

Customers can also visit www.justea.com to purchase tea or learn more about all of JusTea's work.

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