A Visit With Failure On The Road To Success

I had already been sitting with my aches and fears for many hours. I was waiting for the final interview after a long afternoon on a windy deck, in the dry hot air of a cafe adjacent to the hectic street life of Nairobi, Kenya.  We needed more than just a person to do things; we needed an ally, a confidant here in this distant country.

Boaz was the last applicant, arriving late in the day, everyone was tired. His resume was impressive but I had seen it before: a Kenyan with an undergrad degree from the US, and a desire to do business.

But then the meeting took an interesting twist. I told him I was not interested in someone who had the desire just to help JusTea, but someone who had already tried and even failed. 

That surprised him.  “Well, do you want to hear about my huge failure this week?” said Boaz.

“Yes, I do,” I answered. “It’s often through the failures that we can see the road to true success.”

He had sunk a lot of borrowed money into a defunct tea factory in the far reaches of rural west Kenya, near the border of Uganda. He saw the villagers were slowly dying, the factory was closed and there was no markets for any other agriculture foods. The tea they were growing could not be taken to any factory, so there was no reason to harvest the tea. Weeds were crowding out the undernourished tea bushes.

That week, Boaz had just admitted to the bank and to his wife he had failed to revive the decrepit tea factory. His dreams for providing employment were dashed and he had to leave these farmers desperately trying to find other options for income. 

Boaz seemed to be grappling with the gap between business and a social conscience.  We understood this.  He could be our partner, our ally. As a sign of his respect to me, Boaz invited me to meet Jacob, his father, a respected ‘mzee’ or elder. As two fathers, we spent the week together, touring the Western provinces. We saw this as the start of a long-lasting relationship between the Bain family and the Katahs. 

Boaz, a man who had dared to act…to build something not just for himself, but for other Kenyans, became our partner and friend.

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The beautiful beginning to JusTea’s story through the eyes of JusTea’s founder, Grayson Bain. Boaz Katah, 38, has now been working with JusTea for over a year and a half in Nairobi, Kenya. His father has worked in the tea industry for decades and owns the farm where JusTea sources their tea. Boaz lives with his wife Jamilla and their son Trevor in Nairobi but spends a lot of time in Nandi Hills making tea.

I had a very special opportunity to reach out to Boaz to ask him some questions about his life in Kenya, the tea making process and how he feels about his tea reaching North America.

Why did you decide to learn about tea processing?       

I have had a passion for tea from the onset. My first job was working for a multinational tea company in the IT department. I began thinking of ways to impact people’s lives through tea and moved on to create a tea packing business, employing people in need of work. Eventually I began to see the potential to impact more people through orthodox tea production (more jobs).

What was it like growing up on a tea farm?        

Friends and visitors were always so amazed by how green it is at a tea plantation. I remember walking along the pathways through the fields with my sister. There are grids of pathways cutting through the fields for pluckers to move through. They’re about as high as my solar plexus so for a kid they’re above your head, like you’re walking in a maze. The smell of the tea factories was a very distinct memory. I also recall the challenge of planting tea bushes as a kid, trying to get the rows perfectly straight.

What is your favorite part of tea processing and what are some challenges you face?                                    

Right now I’m really excited about colours. Particularly the possibility of creating a spectrum of liquor colours, from green to yellow to purple and so on. Oolong tea production is representing a typical challenge right now because the steps required to lock in a particular flavour are so subjective. There is no exact scientific recipe to follow, you have to adjust according to a number of different variables. So you can’t just say, dry the tea for two hours and its ready, it’s more like dry the tea until the smell is such and such and the leaves are looking a certain way, etc.

Describe a typical day for you in Nandi Hills.                     

Wake up, go to the tea factory and sit with the guys (the team), give them the recipes, which will be informed by the conditions of the day (rainy, sunny, green leaf is coming late, no power, etc). Monitor progress throughout the day and make decisions and changes based on what comes up. In the evening, cup the teas made that day and think about tomorrow’s plan.

Describe your experience working with JusTea.                              

It has been exciting from the beginning. It’s an exciting prospect to be assured that you have a market for your product. To be sure, I have been pushed to the limit on standards, which is tough but I have learned a lot and it’s really preparing me for having more customers and meeting their demands.

What do you think of your tea making its way to Canada?           

I’m excited. It’s a great feeling. Very few Kenyan companies are making shelf ready products so being the first feels great. I’m looking forward to producing and selling on a consistent basis.

What is your favorite kind of tea?                          

Oolong tea, if I had to choose.

When you visit Canada, what would you be most interested in doing?

Besides partying? Just Kidding. Really, I’m excited to take Jamilla to see the snow, to immerse her in winter.

I understand that you and your wife work with youth at risk in Nairobi. Can you tell me about that?     

Both Jamilla and I have a passion for social justice and making a positive impact in people’s lives. We work mainly with young women but sometimes with young men as well. Currently we are supporting a young man through high school. A lot of what we do is just talking with them, giving support and reassurance, having them stay with us and mentoring them.