Building a sustainable family business with Kenyan connections.
Most people may not immediately think of Kenya as a tea production and export powerhouse; however, Kenya is the third largest tea-producing country in the world, behind China and India. There are more than half a million small-scale tea farms in Kenya, and its geographical location near the equator is the ideal climate. In fact, Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of black tea, and according to Marketwatch.com, the global tea market has had an impressive recovery since 2020 and is projected to grow from $88 trillion to $139 trillion by 2026.
Tea has been an agricultural staple in Kenya since the early 20th century. In 2008, Kate Holby ’12 was visiting her sister Sara Holby, a graduate of Bowdoin College, who, following her St. Lawrence Kenya Program experience in 2007, was working for an nongovernmental organization in Kenya providing medicines and resources to communities hit hard by HIV and AIDS. The sisters were struck by how the global financial recession had an immediate and severe impact on international support of NGOs supplying food and medicine with devastating effects on Kenyan families who relied on those resources. They had an idea.
The Holby sisters, along with their mother, Ann Funkhouser ’79, a 1978 alumna of the Kenya Program, decided to create an autonomous support system that was untangled from the international aid models. Instead, they would build a sustainable business that relied on the expertise of Kenyan women entrepreneurs, the country’s natural resources and robust small tea farms, and a strong Laurentian partnership to help support communities in western Kenya.
The result is the Ajiri Company and Ajiri Foundation, a 100 percent women-owned and women-operated tea and coffee company headquartered in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania. One hundred percent of Ajiri’s profits are channeled to the foundation to support employment and educational opportunity for orphaned children.
“Relationships built through the Kenya study abroad program play a large part in Ajiri’s success within Kenya and the States,” says Kate. Sara and Kate grew up hearing stories about the St. Lawrence Kenya Program from family, including their mother, Ann; their two aunts, Nancy E. Funkhouser ’88 and Jane Funkhouser Smith ’77; and their uncle, Barrett Holby ’79. “People can’t just jump into another country and replicate this,” says Kate. “We have been successful because we have relationships going back to when my mom first studied abroad.”
Relationships built through the Kenya study abroad program play a large part in Ajiri’s success within Kenya and the States. People can’t just jump into another country and replicate this. We have been successful because we have relationships going back to when my mom first studied abroad.” – Kate Holby ’12
The business has only grown since it launched in 2009, adding coffee products and expanding their foundation work to support economic development. Ajiri tea as well as the twine for the tea bags are grown and produced by local women. The packaging and labels are all sourced and designed locally as well, adding jobs to the local economy. By partnering with the Kenyan community, the Holbys have been able to bring the finished product to markets back in the United States.
“What’s been unique about Ajiri is, while we are putting the product together here in Kenya, all we did to become an award-winning tea was bring the product to consumers in the U.S.,” says Sara about Ajiri winning best black tea three years in a row at the World Tea Expo. “We didn’t change how the tea was being grown. That is truly our Kenyan partners’ expertise and excellence,” she says. “Ajiri is just creating that opportunity for people in Kenya to be connected with the consumer base here in the U.S.”
It is also from their Kenyan partners that the framework for the Ajiri Foundation was developed.
“We asked the women, ‘Where do you think the profits should go?’” Kate explains, “and they all unanimously said ‘education.’ So, it was not initially our idea.” The Ajiri Foundation funds education fees for orphans in Kenya and focuses on holistic development.
“When we started, we thought we would just be paying school fees,” Sara says. “What’s grown over time is the scope of what we’re doing, because we’ve learned that we can’t just pay school fees. Our entire Ajiri strategy is to fill the gaps of their education system so that they can compete for greater opportunities here in Kenya,” Sara says. The Ajiri Foundation has added programming in computer literacy, sex education, even swim lessons, among other programs.
The St. Lawrence alumni network has also been instrumental in expanding these programs for the Ajiri students using the Kenya Program immersion as a model.
“We went on two mentoring trips with our students to Nairobi,” says Sara, “visiting different offices, meeting with professionals, meeting with college students, just showing them what is out there, what they can do when they graduate from college. It’s important for every student, no matter where they live, to understand why they are in school—show them what opportunities their own country has that they could aspire to.”
“I feel very fortunate that our students in rural, western Kenya, who don’t have a lot of opportunities, suddenly have access to this alumni network,” Kate adds. “Especially when we were starting out, alumni reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, you know, we see that you’re starting this project, how can we help you?’”
The catalyst of new and old connections is often St. Lawrence’s Kenya Program. “The program has always been a part of our conversations at home,” says Sara, “not just the study abroad, but the friendships and connections our family have made and kept for 40-something years.”