Corporate scandals may be what make the news, but many corporations are now getting involved with ventures motivated by values. Traditionally, the effort to contribute has been through donations to non-profit organizations or foundations established by the corporations. A new, hands-on form of corporate involvement is blossoming, however, led by corporations who seek to partner with non-profits to create specific humanitarian programs.
One example of this new relationship is Tazo Tea Company. Recently, Tazo announced the launch of Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI), in partnership with Mercy Corps and implemented through local partner DEG. The project is intended to support community development in India by taking a proactive approach to building strong communities in the tea-growing district of Darjeeling, India, home to some of the finest tea available in the world, and not coincidentally, many of Tazo's suppliers.
Tea gardens in India are required by law to provide minimum health care, education, and wages to workers. The CHAI project will augment existing statutory requirements, and improve living conditions for people on tea gardens, as well as in the surrounding region.
Mercy Corps conducted a preliminary assessment in Darjeeling last June, recommending that CHAI focus on three main areas: improved water quality and access to clean water, vocational training, and development and implementation of self-governing bodies. Women, who perform most of the tea harvesting, cited water collection as their most time consuming daily task, and many tea garden workers are impacted by water-borne health problems. Youth and males, on the other hand, were found to have few employment opportunities, resulting in high alcoholism rates and other physical and mental health problems. Finally, the goal of developing new community groups will be to engage in activities such as micro-lending, recycling, forestation, and sanitation and home improvement.
Mercy Corps, through local implementing partner DEG, will design and manage the three-year CHAI project from a base in Darjeeling with primarily local staff. The $600,000 program will be funded by Tazo and its partners throughout the supply chain. In a unique effort, Tazo has gathered support for CHAI through its tea suppliers, which include tea growers, traders, and brokers, all of whom will contribute a portion of their Tazo sales to support the program. When Tazo purchases tea from a garden group, the group commits to contributing two to five percent of the purchase price. If Tazo buys tea through a broker, the broker contributes an additional three percent. Tazo then contributes an additional five percent. The total contribution is roughly eleven percent of the purchase price of the tea. Starbucks, the parent company of Tazo, is also supporting the project with a significant financial contribution. This multi-level endeavor, soliciting support form stakeholders throughout the business, will help ensure the project's long-term viability.
"Tazo has long-standing and close relationships with the people in the tea gardens of India," said Steve Smith, Tazo's founder. "The Darjeeling economy is very depressed, recent monsoons have caused extensive damage, and lack of access to clean water has left many people in ill health. I'm looking at creating a situation for our company that allows us to be able to do the right thing in these origin countries." Tazo is hopeful that within two years, a similar project can be initiated in Sri Lanka, another major source of tea.
"I have put a lot of effort into the region," says Smith of his almost two decades of travelling to the Darjeeling region "When I go over, I spend a lot of time in each particular region and I visit a lot of gardens." - often up to 25. "Things that we look for are clean factories, well-managed child care and health services, and we look at housing. We just kind-of get a general sense of what's happening in that tea garden, the unity. Because it really goes beyond the product that it is in the cup, you've got to look at the community."
Because of Smith's involvement in the region, he participated in establishing the CHAI project's priorities. "Women's issues are very high on the list. It covers so many areas: children, health, and welfare. The fact that women in the tea producing regions have an unusually high burden placed upon them, compared with their male counterparts, is another reason why we chose to focus on women's issues. We have also been looking at the underemployment of men, and what to do about this situation. It goes back to violence against women, alcoholism, and so many issues. Only one- third of the people who live on the garden work on the garden. Two thirds of the inhabitants of the gardens don't work, and they are usually men."
The underemployment of men is one reason that Tazo, Mercy Corps and DEG are focusing on providing vocational training opportunities. Smith observed that, "Men work primarily in the factory. They sometimes work in the fields pruning and in the nurseries, but there are limited opportunities. There really are only positions for a female plucker, her male counterpart, and the oldest child. There is no work for the second and third children. They go to school until about a high school level. Once they are out of that, they are somewhat educated, but then they have nothing to do."
"The CHAI project gives us a remarkable opportunity to bring Mercy Corps' skills in building healthy communities to an under-served part of India," explains Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer. "Tazo's emphasis on long-term sustainability is very much in line with Mercy Corps' philosophy, and we are delighted to team up in this effort."
Since its inception in 1979, Mercy Corps has worked in 74 countries around the world. The agency currently runs health, agriculture, economic development, capacity-building, and relief programs in more than 30 countries. The CHAI program represents the largest cash grant Mercy Corps has ever received from a business partner.
"We're pleased that the growth of our business has made it possible to contribute on this level," said Tal Johnson, Tazo's president. "CHAI will make a significant and sustainable difference in the lives of people in the tea producing communities."
As to his motivation for initiating a project with Mercy Corps, Smith says, "Every time I go overseas I am impressed by the work effort and the relationships that have developed, and by how important the community is to the tea industry. I've been in the industry for 30 years, and I have always wanted to do something. I am treated so well when I go out to these countries. I go out to the fields, I get my hands dirty, and I like to talk with the workers and engage with them. When I see the bright eyes of children in their schools, it makes you want to do something."
Smith adds, "It is a very arduous process to see all of these gardens, but I have to do it, everyone is very proud of the work that they do. To look at the amount of work that is done by hand is just absolutely phenomenal. Most tea gardens have five or six villages, three schools, and a health care facility - it is a true community. It is just so uplifting to see a small hut with a dirt floor that has carefully tended flowers out front. People are very proud of what it is that they do, and they are more than willing to share their experiences with you. Once you're exposed to that, it is hard to remain the same."