Is Social Justice Your Cup of Tea? BC Man Aims to Help Kenyan Farmers

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Many of us drink our morning or afternoon cup of tea without a thought as to where it comes from. Entrepreneur Grayson Bain is determined to change that.

Bain’s vision led to the creation of JusTea, the world’s first direct-trade partnership between tea drinkers and tea farmers in Kenya. Bain attends Nelson Avenue Community Christian Reformed Church in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Kenya is one of the top three exporters of tea in the world, and most of the crop is grown by over half a million small-scale farmers. However, many of these farmers receive only a small portion of the profits, earning less than $2 per day selling their tea to large companies.

JusTea goes beyond fair trade and eliminates the “middleman” entirely by providing the equipment and training the farmers need to hand-process their own tea in small processing kitchens. The result is a high-quality artisan tea made without costly electricity-dependent factory machinery. JusTea then buys the tea and sells it directly to the consumer, thereby providing a living wage for the farmers and their families.

“With direct trade, the tea consumer knows the name and location of the tea production, can understand the nature and environmental condition of the tea growing area, and find out about social, political or economic factors in the specific area that their tea is grown. Simply, the tea drinker can begin a relationship with the tea grower in Kenya,” explained Bain.

Bain, who has already travelled to Kenya to meet with farmers, will return this fall to build the first tea processing kitchen with local partners, and he doesn’t plan to stop there.

“This is the nexus of a vision that sees justice and mercy shown through direct trade with farmers. In the future we can expand to other countries and farmers faced with similar injustices to Kenya’s tea farmers,” said Bain.

About the Author

Tracey Yan is the Banner's regional news correspondent for classes British Columbia North-west and British Columbia South-east.

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Kudos to Grayson Bain, an entrepreneur who apparently has figured out a new and hopefully better way to market Kenyan tea.  "Middlemen" are sometimes necessary (efficient) and sometimes not.  If they aren't needed here, why use them?

I am having a hard time time though figuring out how doing what Mr. Bain is doing here can be described as "social justice."  Justice happens when two or more parties in a relationship receive what they are due.  That happens billions of times every day all around us (I get electricity and for that pay the electric company, etc, etc, etc, etc).  Kenyan farmers who wish to sell their tea are not "owed" anything by anyone except when someone decides they want to to buy their tea and offer to do so under particular proposed terms.  Certainly if those people, even the ones described as "middlemen," don't pay what they agreed to pay, then injustice has occurred.  But if buyers, even "middlemen," offer to buy and Kenyan farmers agree to sell, and payment is made, then there is no injustice (assuming of course government hasn't in some ways injected an aberation to the volutary decisions being made).  Apparently, Mr. Bain is able -- or at least willing -- to pay more for the tea, whether it is because he is being merciful (suggested by his quote at the end of the article), or because he is able to market the tea and bring the tea to market more effectively and efficiently.  From this article, it seems Mr. Bain has spent some time figuring out a different way to market and to bring the product to market.  Again, kudos.

By this post, I'm not at all trying to diminish what Mr. Bain is doing (by saying "it isn't social justice").  What I am intending to do is to emphasize the value of all "entrepreneurs" who have for decades and centuries been figuring out better ways -- for all involved -- to produce and distribute goods and services.  When that involves Kenyan tea growers, it is really no different from when it involves North American farmers, or Italian vineyard owners, or (insert a million other examples here).  I think it better to appreciate the tremendous value so many have created by "doing business well" than to try to give a "special label" (i.e., "social justice") to "special instances" of doing business.  And yes, that probably means this isn't "social justice" any more (or less) than when an Oregon dairyman figures out how to most effectively and efficiently produce milk so that people can drink milk and have other dairy products at a low cost.  Or, I suppose, we could say the Oregon dairyman was doing "social justice" every time he delivered another tank of American made milk.  But if we said that, most people would just think we were talking funny.

I understand your argument, but I think the term "social justice" differs to a different ideology than "justice" by itself. Rather than an entrepreneur building a business to benefit him/herself and fill a need, social justice incorporates the concepts of fairness and equality among social classes, including the idea of a "living wage". I think you would also find that many of the large multi-national companies these farmers sell their produce to hold an incredible amount of power and influence, leaving the farmer with little choice but to agree to their prices. But thanks for your input!

Tracey: I appreciate the exchange.  Let me offer this reply to your response.

You say "... social justice incorporated the concepts of [1] fairness and [2] equality among social classes ...".

First as to "fairness".  Would it not be "fair" for any potential purchaser of the tea to propose a price, and if the seller chose to sell, or not, the seller could do as he chose?  And if no one wanted to buy the tea, or at a higher price, would that not also be "fair"?  (If not, the whole world and everyone in it are not being fair because no would buy it, or buy it a higher price -- not?)  Indeed, one could argue that Grayson Bain is being unfair here for not offering a higher price yet.  (That wouldn't be my argument of course).

Second as to "equality among social classes".  I just don't understand what that means.  I suspect Grayson Bain and the tea sellers from Kenya are not equal at all, at least economically speaking, largely because Grayson Bain from a first world country and the Kenyon tea growers are from a third world country.  Again, I wouldn't be inclined to criticize Mr. Bain for being from the country he is from, nor for having the wealth he has (like OT Abraham had), but I'm still not any  "equality among social classes" that you cite as a characteristic of this transaction that makes it "social justice." 

Finally, you suggest this is social justice because this transaction involves a "living wage."  I seriously doubt that.  Of course, if you define a "living wage" as that which keeps Kenyon's alive (living), they were already getting that (they were alive) before Mr. Bain approached them.  If you define a living wage at that which Americans generally mean by that, I doubt very much Mr. Bain is paying a "living wage."

It is possible of course that Mr. Bain is paying an amount that is more than "fair," that he is in essence gratuitously "tipping" the Kenyan tea producers, giving them more than that which the market would require.  If he is doing that, that isn't "justice" (or social justice) but rather "mercy," unless of course "social justice" means both justice and mercy, in which case we're just changing the definitions for our English words of justice and mercy.

Again, I should repeat that I admire what Mr. Bain is doing, whether it amounts to doing business in an honorable way or doing business in an honorable way plus being merciful.  I'm just not seeing the "social justice."

By the way, Oregon dairymen also perceive milk buyers to hold an "incredible amount of power and influence," and they typically leave dairymen with "little choice but to agree to the buyer's prices."  Perhaps some of these "large multi-national companies" will now offer these Kenyan tea growers more for their tea, given that Mr. Bain is offering them more.  Their doing so  would of course be in keeping with the way free market economics always works.  I notice, by the way, that these "large multi-national companies" apparently don't have the kind of power required to keep Mr. Bain from buying the Kenyan tea at higher prices, depriving them of their "lower price benefits."  If they did of course, I would suggest there is a distortion in the Kenyan political system and there is indeed some injustice (political corruption) that needs to be corrected.  Barring that, I'm still seeing pretty ordinary business going on, possibly supplemented by some mercy (from Mr. Bain), but I'm still not "social justice" (again, whatever that exactly means).

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