It's tasting season for Tazo Tea: Keith Hutjens' favorite time of year. We caught up with Keith, director of Tazo tea procurement, and his colleague, Jackie Liao, manager of community investments at the Starbucks Foundation, to talk about the company's 10-year-long partnership with Mercy Corps in India. Called CHAI (Community Health and Advancement Initiative), the project supports tea-growing communities with health services and economic development opportunities, with a special emphasis on youth.
Global Envision: Jackie, thinking about your travels to Assam this spring to visit the tea estates where Tazo sources some leaves for its brews, what stands out most in your mind?
Jackie Liao: One moment really sticks out. When we arrived at the Maud tea estate, the entire village gathered to meet us. They packed into a 100-degree room. Sitting there, looking out into the audience, the so-called 'youth bulge' was incredibly evident. About half the people there were young. And it struck me that young people all over the world are facing the same issues: they need opportunities and livelihoods, but they also need education and skills to be able to take those opportunities.
Global Envision: What's the employment outlook for the children of tea pluckers on the estates?
Keith Hutjens: These days, tea estates are only hiring employees' kids if the employee is retiring. The estates are not growing. This means a lot of children are left out in the fray.
Global Envision: One of the CHAI project's priorities is building youth skills. What kind of impact did you see on youth who live on the tea estates?
Jackie Liao: I spoke with one group of young women who had been trained through the CHAI project as nurses’ aides and are now working at a big hospital in a nearby town. Smiles just lit up their whole faces when they talked about how they can contribute financially to their families. The training has had a great impact on these young women, but they're now an inspiration for others in their community, too. I also spoke with some young men who had received technical training for refrigeration and air conditioner repair. Most of the young men are really shy but, again, their faces lit up in smiles when they talked about the CHAI apprenticeship and their jobs. It's remarkable.
Global Envision: Keith, you've been visiting estates where CHAI is active for almost eight years now. What surprises you most?
Keith Hutjens: One of the biggest things for me is to see how small opportunities given to villagers can make substantial changes in people's lives. One person I met had received three lines of microcredit loans from the CHAI project. The first was probably three years ago and was a very small loan. He paid it back quickly and came back for a second and third loan. We made capital available, and we got it all back. Today this young man has a wonderful little restaurant and supply shop just outside a hospital near the tea estate. He’s financially stable, got married, has kids and has this great ongoing enterprise.
Over the 10 years of the partnership, we've been able to fine-tune our responses based directly on needs, partly through Mercy Corps staff on the ground and partly through Tazo and Starbucks employees on the ground.
Global Envision: The Starbucks Foundation is the main source of funding for this program, but you've engaged others along the supply chain, too?
Keith Hutjens: Tea suppliers are voluntarily contributing two- to five-percent of the dollar value of the tea we buy from them toward the project. That ends up being hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's a unique way to leverage funding with buy-in from communities of origin.
Global Envision: What's the incentive for local tea suppliers to make contributions to the program?
Jackie Liao: [When I traveled to Assam] I had the opportunity to visit with the owner of one company and the tea estate manager, and we talked about their motivation for being involved. They see a difference in the quality of life for people living on the estate. Employees are healthier, which helps improve absenteeism, and CHAI's community support helps build long-term stability.
Global Envision: What does CHAI 2.0 look like? Do you have plans for expansion?
Jackie Liao: We plan to open retail stores in India at end of this calendar year, and our business interests and interests in helping communities will only deepen with the opening of stores. It will continue to be collaboration between Mercy Corps' CHAI staff, Starbucks and Tazo, and meet ongoing community needs.
Keith Hutjens: There are Starbucks stores in 57 countries. The largest amount of tea that we buy comes from India, our newest retail market, which creates the foundation of our teas. One of our most popular is our Chai Tea Latte. By opening coffee stores in the country, we'll be bringing our version of Indian teas to India. These places are really important to Tazo and Starbucks, villagers have given so much to us. A way for us to give back is through CHAI. We hope to expand it to other places we source teas and spices from.