By Jenna Oliver, MA, Innovation and Business Evolution Manager for the College of Business at Regis University
When he was 18 years old, Meme Kinoti spent every summer day from sun up to sun down in the Kenyan tea fields, working alongside his family so he could raise enough money to pay his bus fare to Eldoret, 250 miles away from his home in the Meru highlands, to attend college.
He needed the equivalent of $10 – and despite his efforts, an entire summer of hard labor in the fields harvesting tea – he could not save enough.
Now an associate professor of nonprofit management at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, he looks back on that time and the struggles he faced with deep emotion and resolve.
“I grew up poor,” he says. “That was not because we did not work hard. Indeed, we worked exceedingly hard. We farmed tea. The problem with farming tea was that we were not compensated for our labor or having the crop on our piece of land.”
The stark realization that Kinoti could not earn money for the bus fare to go to college was one of the lowest moments of his life. He recalls sitting in the doorway of his family home, weeping – angry that God would allow such poverty and despair to exist. But even when he was young, Kinoti did not give up easily.
He borrowed the money he needed to get to Nairobi and began the journey to becoming a professor, filmmaker and human rights advocate.
As a professor at Regis, Kinoti has dedicated himself to influencing change, in Kenya and beyond.
“My commitment is to research and understand the tea value chains as a means to help support rural farmers like my parents to make a better living out of their land and labor,” he says. “I am working to find social justice solutions that support the farmers making a living wage and I would like to educate the world on the values of sustainable livelihoods.”
Kinoti recently travelled back to Kenya to document the challenges that still exist in one of the world’s largest exporters of black tea and to tell the story through the powerful visual medium of digital film, bringing his personal narrative and passionate mission into full focus.
His film opens with a shot of a clearing mist that reveals a captivating landscape of vibrant, richly green rolling fields of tea plants. But it is not the landscape that is most compelling: it is the story of The Mouths that Eat from Tea and the complex economic and social challenges that it reveals.
Through this film, Kinoti urges the audience to consider what the process of growing, producing and selling tea entails and how we must examine the human cost of what we consume.
“Tea is healthy and good,” he says. “This is globally accepted. However, I would ask, is tea good and healthy for those who have become, essentially, indentured servants to produce it?”
Jessica Chance, of the nonprofit film production company Stories without Borders, travelled with Kinoti to Kenya to shoot the film. She was struck by what she learned at the tea farms. As a result of her experience, she has become deeply passionate about the film and Kinoti's mission.
“In all that he does, it appears to me that Kinoti is working to improve the lives of others,” she says. “Most important, his mother and sisters farming tea in rural Kenya. The goal of this film, and our ongoing partnership, is to share their story, which is also the story of about 500,000 tea farmers today. It is an honor to work with a man so singularly focused on making a difference with his life."
Kinoti teaches international development to graduate students and in doing so, brings a deeply personal experience to the classroom. He embraces his role within the Jesuit educational system to ask, “How ought we to live?” and is able to answer it with clarity of purpose through a clear vision of past, present and possibility.
He talks candidly to his students and his audiences about how he is striving to help pay his family's debts, and gain equality, dignity and control over their own economic future.
“I am using the material I have developed, including the interactive documentary, as teaching tools with my students about international development, and the need for a true triple bottom-line: profits, people and planet,” he says. “Making a living from one’s efforts is a social justice matter. That is why this and many other stories need to be told.”
Kinoti has connected with Farm Concern International, an African agri-business organization to work on raising awareness and finding first-step solutions that he can offer to viewers, like supporting farmers who are diversifying their farming. He also remains focused on using the film as a tool to open dialogue and challenge those who engage with it to become active, not just with the media, but with the subject matter and the cause it advances. He is working with the College of Business and Economics at Regis to distribute it as a digital case study for the Jesuit network.
“He is forging a new way of presenting case studies that is visually compelling and virtually takes students to the places where the change needs to [happen] through the digital dialogue,” says Ken Sagendorf, director of Regis’ Center for Innovation. “By bringing these people and the real-life struggles that they face into focus, Kinoti hopes to give voice to suffering and encourage true and substantive change.”
Kinoti’s documentary, The Mouths that Eat from Tea, can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/KenyaTea. The Interactive documentary was funded by and produced by Stories Without Borders and Chance Media in partnership with VERSE, a ground-breaking interactive video platform. To learn more about Kinoti's mission, vision and challenge to all of us to examine how we ought to live, please reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 964-5312.