Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Grow it and they will come

A recent segment of “This American Life” records the laments of an aid worker in Haiti whose simple, low-cost idea to help smallholder mango farmers became hopelessly entangled in the labyrinthine procedures of large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the poverty-stricken nation.

The simple idea was to help the farmers get more of their fresh, juicy mangos to eager buyers outside of the island by giving them plastic crates in which to store and transport the mangos to the docks for shipment.

A simple idea, but not so simple for a large NGO to implement: You need, the aid worker was told, land on which to build a center where the crates can be stored and cleaned and where the farmers can come pick up the crates and learn about fruit-packing. And the land had to be donated to the NGO, not sold or loaned. Even after willing donors were found, the legal work to transfer title was long and complex.

And then after the horrible earthquake in Haiti, the NGO — like many others there — began focusing more on the big picture: What's the point in helping farmers crate and warehouse fruit if distribution and shipping channels need updating, too? And the nation's financial infrastructure is badly in need of fixing, too.

Soon, a year goes by, then two or three, and the mango farmers still don't have their crates.

I am not knocking the big NGOs. Their noble, self-sacrificing volunteers do much-needed work — and big things, too, far beyond the scope of small fry like Mellow Monk.

And yet sometimes, a big transformation starts with small changes. Starting at the grassroots level, these changes spread outward and upward organically, instead of being imposed artificially from above.

This is precisely the philosophy to which Mellow Monk subscribes. This bottom-up approach could be called "Grow it and they will come."

Remember the movie where Kevin Costner hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield? "If you build it, he will come," says the voice.

Since then, the phrase Build it and they will come has come to mean "Just do that good thing now, and soon word will get around, people will see what you've done, see how good it is, and flock to you."

This is the philosophy seen in grassroots organizations like Kiva (which Mellow Monk supports wholeheartedly) — and exactly the approach that Mellow Monk and our growers are taking: They produce their amazingly delicious, wholesome, healthy, and authentic green tea, and we provide a way for tea aficionados outside of Japan to find it.

So you could say that Mellow Monk is like a plastic crate: the growers use us as they see fit, and as more and more tea drinkers discover their wonderful tea, the change will follow, rather than trying to do it the other way around.

From the top-level perspective of global tea production, this means: Don't try to change the way tea is grown or distributed. Don't try to reform massive, eco-unfriendly agribusiness. Instead, find tea that is already being made responsibly, then create new ways to get that tea to those who want it.

Grow it and they will come: That, in a nutshell, is Mellow Monk's strategy.

I would like to thank all who have supported us on this journey so far, and I welcome the rest of you to join us, too. After all, has such a wonderful cause ever been this tasty or this good for you?

Two grower–artisans toast to another successful harvest.

—Mellow Monk


blog feed, facebook, reviews, teas, tweets, videos