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Courtesy: Duke Sports Information
Debree: Tea Adventure Reflections
Courtesy: Duke Sports Information
Release: 06/14/2017
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By Schuyler DeBree, Senior Defender - Duke Women's Soccer

DURHAM, N.C.-- Starting on May 7, I spent two weeks in Kenya, and one week in London, England. During the three-week trip, I conducted research on the tea industry through a case study of sustainable tea certifications in Kenya. I intend to write an honors thesis my senior year, and graduate with distinction from the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Usually the first question I get about my research, is ‘why tea?'

The Background

Last summer, I worked as a Research Intern for Dr. Jay Golden, the Director of the Duke Center for Sustainability & Commerce. He has since become my advisor through two separate Independent Studies, and my biggest advocate for using academics as a vehicle for personal growth and adventure.

Dr. Golden specializes in evaluating the sustainability of bio-products and agricultural systems. Unfortunately, food systems stress me out from a sustainability perspective. We compromised on something non-nutritional, that does not have to directly answer the question ‘how do we feed the growing population with dwindling resources?'

The other key factor in my decision is my love (obsession?) for tea. I can read about it for hours, which is a necessary requirement when embarking on a thesis. My affinity for the beverage began with sipping on the couch with my mom, and grew into a passion after being introduced to the Harney & Sons tasting room in Millerton, NY.

So, yeah. That is the gist behind how I wound up spending a whole academic year reading about tea, and why I spent three weeks conducting on-the-ground research in Kenya and England.

The PRE-search

My trip was designed to interview a range of representatives from the tea value chain: Kenyan farmers and workers, key certification bodies and companies in London, and everyone in-between during two conferences in Nairobi.

The trip was a culmination of my two Independent Studies with Dr. Golden. During the first Independent Study in the Fall, I gathered general data on the tea industry, and focused on gaining an understanding of the key trends and players. In the Spring, my focus narrowed to sustainable tea production in Kenya.

My interest in Kenya's sustainable tea production began after reading the State of Sustainable Initiatives, Tea Market (2014)  report. Kenya is the third largest producer of tea by volume, after China and India. However, the vast majority of tea in China and India is consumed domestically, whereas 95 percent of Kenya's tea is exported, making Kenya the leading exporter of black tea globally.

Pressure from foreign markets on Kenya's tea production spurred the implementation of sustainable tea standards, with Unilever's commitment to Rainforest Alliance in 2006 driving change. Other key standards in the tea industry include Fairtrade, UTZ, and Organic. For those unfamiliar with sustainability standards/ certifications – they are organizations designed to evaluate, insure, and communicate the sustainability of farms and factories by auditing against specific criteria. Their main purpose is to provide assurance to brands, retailers, and eventually consumers that their tea is coming from sustainable sources, while ideally improving environmental, economic, and social conditions on-the-ground in growing areas.

In 2012, Kenya produced eight percent of global tea, but 40 percent of global standard-compliant tea. The report showed that 72.1 percent of Kenya's tea was standard-compliant by volume, and those numbers have continued to increase dramatically. In India, the next largest standard-compliant by volume, only 12.2 percent of national tea production was standard-compliant. China was the fifth largest producer of standard-compliant tea by volume in 2012, but the 38,855 tons only represented .3 percent of national tea production.

I was intrigued as to how the Kenyan tea industry had managed to accomplish such high percentages of standard-compliant tea, and whether those standards were truly having a beneficial impact on the environment, economy, and society.

The Trip

Week 1

My first week was dedicated to attending the Team Up Africa Conference (May 10), hosted by the Ethical Tea Partnership and the Sustainable Trade Initiative, and the East Africa Tea Trading Association Conference (May 11 – 12). During those three days, my main goal was to learn as much as possible. That goal was especially important in the times that I felt completely out of place, as a reminder that this was an experience for growth, not one of flawless professionalism.

I still have not been able to process all of the information I gained during the three days of conferences. I attended upwards of 25 presentations, but the most fascinating information came from conversations during Tea Breaks, the Gala Dinner at The Carnivore Restaurant (where I may have eaten Ostrich and Crocodile and other meats that I did not ask the name of), and other casual conversations.

After the closing remarks on the 12th, I embarked on a Post-Conference trip to Kericho and the Maasai Mara. Kericho is an area of Kenyan highlands known for its rolling hills carpeted by tea bushes, and the Maasai Mara is one of Kenya's best-known game reserves.

My Post-Conference tour companions included 13 men, most twice my age, from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. We were told it would be a three-hour drive to Kericho. Six hours later, we arrived at the Kericho Tea Hotel. That six-hour drive, through rural Kenya, as the light faded, with 13 unfamiliar men, was definitely the most vulnerable and uncertain part of my trip. However, over the following 48 hours, my nickname became “The Queen,” and my once unfamiliar companions became my friends, and key contacts for my future research.  

The morning of the 13th, we visited the Toror Tea Factory, and then departed for the Maasai Mara. For the entire five-hour drive, I was looking out the window, and watching the Kenyan countryside. The last two hours were spent on a rocky dirt road, an experience described affectionately by our guide as a ‘massage,' driving past zebra, giraffe, and buffalo.  

We eventually arrived at the Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, and went on an afternoon game drive. We went on another game drive the next morning at 6:30 a.m. Both of those drives were some of the happiest, and most awe-filled moments of my life. On the six-hour drive back to Nairobi, I again was looking out the window, not wanting to miss any part of the country that I was slowly falling in love with.

To wrap up my first week, I went to dinner with a UNC PhD student (gasp!). Gitti had been in Kenya for about a year doing research on ecosystem conservation, and she helped me think through everything that I learned so far, and refocus my goals for my remaining time abroad. After staying the night in an EcoCamp in Karen (about 10 minutes outside of Nairobi) I was ready for week two.

Week Two

My second week was spent about an hour outside of Nairobi in the Limuru region. I stayed in the Brackenhurst Hotel and Conference, which was a quiet oasis with an adorable café (which is all I really need).

Throughout the week, I visited the Ngorongo Tea Factory, the Kacharoba Tea Farm, the Kiambethu Tea Farm, and the Karirana Tea Estate. At each farm or factory, I was met with incredible hospitality, and a willingness to help me learn that I still cannot fully express my appreciation for.

At each location, I was offered tea, and far more information and transparency than I had expected. I walked through entire factory operations; discussed company goals and practices; and got answers to hard questions on sexual harassment, financial realities, and the impacts of certification.

At this point, my comfort levels had increased dramatically since my initial days, wide-eyed, in the bustling streets of Nairobi. I decided to treat myself to a solo horseback ride – something that I would not have had the confidence for during my first week. For those who don't know, I love horses, and would have been a rider instead of a soccer player if I had my way when I was young.

After a 15-minute drive, I found myself being led through a worker village to old stables. I was greeted by five dogs, a few young children, and introduced to my horse. My ‘guide' asked if I had ever ridden, and I said yes, but did not mention the rarity of it, or the fact that the last time had been over 2 years prior. Without saying another word, he helped me throw my leg over my horse, hopped on his, and rode off. My horse immediately followed his, along with three of the dogs. We spent the next hour riding through the Kenyan countryside. It was irrelevant to tea (other than the fact that we rode through a tea farm or two), but it was definitely one of my all-time favorite moments.

My last day in Kenya was spent back at the EcoCamp in Karen, sad to be leaving, but very content with how I had used my time.

Week Three

I landed in London around 5:30 a.m. on May 22. I went directly to Canary Wharf, the financial hub of London, and experienced some very acute reverse-culture-shock. The rest of my day was spent exploring the St. Katherine Docks, and then attending a modern performance of Othello at the Wilton's Theatre, the oldest surviving music hall in the world.

My research continued in meetings throughout the week – mainly with contacts I had made in Nairobi. With my new understanding of the industry, my conversations became strikingly more intelligent and interesting. Interviews started to feel more like conversations between colleagues, and my questions led to thought-provoking discussions, as opposed to direct answers.

Other ‘research' included a tea tasting at the original Twinings shop, an afternoon tea in a garden café at the Number Sixteen Hotel, and another afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason. Due to my rigorous research schedule in London, I also had time to visit a Pop Art exhibit at the British Museum, explore the Camden Market, see the London horizon from Primrose Hill, run through Holland Park, be touristy on a big red bus, and watch the FA Cup Final from a Dutch football pub.

Again, I was sad to leave London, but confident I had made the most of my time. I was also ready to be back with teammates in Durham, and back on a regular training schedule.


This was a trip of a lifetime that would not have been possible without a team of amazing humans. Thank you to my advisor Jay Golden, my advocate Laura Brinn, my coaches who supported this adventure whole-heartedly, the numerous other Duke staff who helped logistically, the people who took time to answer my endless inquiries about tea, and especially my parents, who never questioned my capacity to not just get back safely, but thrive in unfamiliar territory.

I am so grateful to be a part of this university, where I have had the resources and community to support a trip that has so strongly influenced my career path, future research, and personal growth.

Thank you Duke.