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we day 2018

The Globe and Mail and WE Charity are partners on a range of content and initiatives, including WE Day at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sept. 20. This story is part of a special report on the organization and the event.

You can’t miss the importance of tea to life in Kenya’s Kericho County. A picturesque landscape of rolling green hills, the Kericho countryside is blanketed in hectare after hectare of tea plants, all the way to the horizon. Thousands of tea farmers, mostly women, plant and harvest here on small farms, most just a hectare or less each – small enough to work by hand.

Tea farming has been an economic mainstay in the region for decades, but with limited incomes and uncertain access to the financial and banking infrastructure found in the country’s larger centres, many tea farmers face hard choices.

“Some of these women might have to choose which child gets medication, or who goes to school, or if she should skip a meal so her kids can get larger portions,” says Robin Wiszowaty, WE’s head of East Africa operations. “Bringing greater financial stability to the people here can hopefully make those kinds of decisions a thing of the past.”

Mary Koech is a tea farmer in Kenya.Wanda O'Brien

Now, a unique partnership between tea giant Lipton and WE is aiming to do exactly that. The beneficiaries will include 80,000 of the small-scale tea farmers here and in nearby tea-growing regions of the Kenyan highlands – including those working on the plantation belonging to Unilever, Lipton’s parent company, which has been growing tea in Kenya since 1924. The program will include training in financial fundamentals, bookkeeping, entrepreneurship, and other basic of running and financing a business.

“Most of them have never undergone any training like this before,” says Justus Mwendwa, associate director of WE Villages in East Africa. “We identify the key concepts, and ask the women what will be most helpful to them. We develop a curriculum and bring together small groups of women to go through this training.”

The program was launched in Kericho and other tea regions this past April, based on a similar program that has operated elsewhere in Kenya since 2009, called ME to WE Artisans. That program was created by Roxanne Joyal, chief executive of ME to WE, after she saw Maasai beaders selling their work at small markets, where competition for limited tourist dollars was fierce. The program helped to identify international markets for the women’s work, birthing WE’s iconic Rafiki bracelets. It also included financial literacy training to help the women manage their new earnings.

Earlier this year, one of the women who took part in that program, Mama Jane, travelled to Kericho to talk to tea farmers about its benefits.

“Mama Jane had a small group that had come together,” Ms. Wiszowaty says, “and they were figuring out: ‘How can we bring transformation to our region as women?’ So they were very excited to partner with us, and see how we could mutually start transforming life there.”

A core group of 5,000 farmers is now receiving in-depth, one-on-one training, with booklets and other training materials provided to an additional 75,000 women, who will benefit from the accumulated community knowledge. One of the ideas being transplanted from the artisans program is a community-based savings and loan, called the Village Saving and Loaning Association. “They get together and buy a share, at say, one dollar each,” Ms. Wiszowaty says. “Those who can afford more might do so, and it creates a communal kitty, to loan money out to one another to start small enterprises while they keep farming.”

The money generated has so far allowed participants to buy larger homes, send their children to school, expand their farms, or start all new enterprises. Mr. Mwendwa points to one woman who started a vegetable farm, and another who spoke about how it transformed her relationship with money: “She always thought she needed a lot of money to plan her financial life, but now she sees that it’s not just about how much you have, but also how organized you are,” he says.

The program is part of WE’s “Track Your Impact” program, and a partnership with Lipton. Tea drinkers in Canada can support the program by purchasing a Lipton product with a “Track Your Impact” sticker, which includes a code that can be entered at, showing exactly how a community in Kenya will benefit from the funds.

“These women are so proud to go back to their families with this knowledge, and empower themselves and their communities,” Ms. Wiszowaty says. “The fact that people around the world can share that pride is amazing.”