In Darjeeling, deep in the foothills of the Himalayas, and in Assam, nourished by a tropical river basin, the world's most favored teas are hand-planted, plucked and processed. Through the gates of these renowned private tea estates, leafy green paths connect the villages where workers and their families live.
But for many families, that’s where the fairy tale vision ends. Living conditions in this remote region of India are often quite poor, and little educational or economic opportunity exists for the family members of tea pluckers, who often spend their whole lives on the estates.
But in these challenging circumstances, change has been brewing for the past 10 years.
In the fall of 2002, Mercy Corps and Tazo Tea partnered to rewrite the narrative of these fabled lands. The Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI) was the first corporate social responsibility program initiated by a tea retailer to help the families at the source of its product.
Directly serving families who live and work on the estates where the company’s tea comes from, the goals of the program dig at the root causes of poverty. Working hand in hand with Starbucks and Tazo tea suppliers, we’ve improved health by increasing access to clean water; strengthened community groups so they can advocate for their own prioritized needs; and connected youth with new career opportunities outside the tea estates.
Over the past decade, this partnership has improved the lives of thousands of residents in hundreds of communities — and the model even expanded to spice-growing communities in the highlands of Guatemala. Though the numbers are powerful, the stories of families overcoming seemingly intractable odds are what warm our hearts.
Meet some of the people Mercy Corps and Tazo have helped over the years:
Rima: Styling a better future
For youth growing up on isolated tea estates, towns that flourish on the periphery offer more chances for gainful employment. But because of substandard schooling and a lack of training, these young people often can't compete with more qualified applicants for even the simplest jobs.
Through CHAI scholarships, technical trainings and apprenticeships, youth are now better prepared for the job market.
"The apprenticeship has really helped us to gain skills like better communications and customer service, and put us on our way to becoming successful entrepreneurs." – Rima, 20 years old
Pramila: Healing a Village
“Reliable” is not how you’d describe health services in rural India. CHAI's youth committees engage and empower young people to lead initiatives that raise the standard of living in their own villages — including the opportunity to participate in a Paramedic Support Program, which provides training and equipment to young women who are committed to entering the health field.
"Mercy Corps is helping us to explore other vocations and come up with new business opportunities. That way, we can ease our reliance on farming." — Pramila, 20 years old
Sushila: Unity takes root between small-scale tea farmers
For more than 150 years tea estates have had strict control of the industry, from planting and processing to labeling and selling. With help from Mercy Corps, small-scale farmers organized and won the right to sell directly to the estates.
Called Organic Ekta, the new association helps farmers like Sushila reap more of the profits of their labors, and they plan to reinvest these profits back into their community. Organic Ekta's undeniable spirit and unity are shaking up the status quo — and promising a better life for those who've had to live far too long on just over a dollar a day.
Hundreds of stories like these make up CHAI's decade of success: helping youth gain skills and meaningful employment, improving health and sanitation, empowering women, and organizing communities to solve their challenges. Let's raise our mugs to the next 10 years of fruitful partnerships for change.