Tsaa Laya: Making Filipino Lives Better One Teabag at a Time

Entrepreneur Jamir Ocampo runs his tea-based social enterprise to help relocated Filipinos regain their dignity

Tsaa Laya is a social enterprise that benefits Filipino communities by helping them make a business based on herbal tea thrive. It taps the indigenous tea culture of the Philippines and combines tea leaves with aromatic herbs, fruits, and spices, to create unique blends.

Its founder and owner, Jamir Ocampo, graduated from Kyoto University in Japan with a Masters degree in Environmental Management. He subsequently came back to the country to work for social development and poverty-reduction programs. His roots inspired and influenced him to set up Tsaa Laya.

“I am Baguio-born. My first memory of Philippine tea started from my mountain city where I saw ‘mountain teas’ regularly sold in the market. Remembering the mountain teas in my Cordillera hometown gave me the inkling that our country has its own culture of producing and drinking herbal teas.”

Seeds of change

In 2011, while Ocampo was working with the Commission on Human Rights, the seeds were planted for Tsaa Laya. “I documented the relocation of urban poor communities from Manila to Calauan, Laguna,” Ocampo says. “That made me realize that the movement of urban poor from Manila to the countryside is not an issue of housing but a question of livelihood access. I was challenged to create livelihood opportunities at the grassroots level.”

The succeeding year, at the British Council’s Social Enterprise Competition, Ocampo came up with the business model for Tsaa Laya–producing herbal tea using the Calauan community as the site for the sustainable livelihood effort. It won seed funding; but this was not enough. In 2015, they competed in the Singapore-based Impact Accelerator Program and won an equity investment that was used to finish the tea factory at Calauan.

“As we pursued the livelihood project, we realized that rural areas like Calauan have a cleaner environment and vast idle lands that are suitable for herbal gardening and tea production,” says Ocampo. “We started replicating our tea livelihood model to address upland poverty with new partner communities like the Ifugao.”

Some of Tsaa Laya’s highland tea farmers

Helping communities prosper

Apart from easing poverty, Ocampo and his group taught indigenous youth and farmers at their second tea community in Kiangan, Ifugao a few lessons in preserving their heritage. Ocampo says, “We developed tea livelihood as an incentive for the farmers to conserve their heritage rice terraces by intercropping high-value herbs in their rice terraces.”

The business model benefits the communities by giving them a source of income. But more importantly, it has given them a measure of dignity. “The aim of our social enterprise model is not to [turn] communities [into] our employees but to transform them as our business partners,” says Ocampo. “We came up with an incubation program called Usbong to develop grassroots-based enterprises. The key goal of this program is to equip the community partners with the skills, assets, and market access that they will need to become a sustainable business enterprise.”

Tsaa Laya communities now support around 20 tea-makers and 50 herbal farmers. They operate in three sites that are being developed into tea villages: the Calauan resettlement in Laguna, Kiangan Rice Terraces in Ifugao, and Sagada in the Mountain Province. “We select our communities based on the existence of a local practice of producing and consuming herbal teas,” says Ocampo. This practice is reflected on Tsaa Laya’s marketing offerings. The soon-to-be released Cordilleran Heritage Tea collection showcases local herbs that only grow in the mountain ecosystem of the Cordilleran highlands.

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Nurturing from Ayala Foundation

The Ayala Foundation, Inc. (AFI) is one of Tsaa Laya’s first partners who assisted them in organizing the Calauan beneficiaries into a tea enterprise. AFI has been a proud ambassador of their teas, promoting the brand among their own corporate partners. This year, Tsaa Laya marks a new milestone of partnership with AFI by building a bigger organic farm and factory at the Avviare land property within Calauan. To celebrate this milestone, Tsaa Laya plans to launch a new blend called “Avviare,” which aims to showcase the unique herbs that will be planted and harvested from the AFI property.

As the business takes off, Ocampo shares his plans: “We want to discover and rediscover more local ingredients from various islands of the Philippines and create signature blends from them. I dream of seeing Philippine origin herbs–whether that will be Tanglad, Pandan or other weird-sounding Filipino herbs–taking its place in the global tea connoisseurship. If we can build at least one Philippine-origin herb as a global brand, that will have such a tremendous impact on Filipino farmers and the entire agriculture industry.”

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Building leaders

The biggest challenge, according to Ocampo, is to groom their community partners into becoming leaders of their own enterprise organization. “The process of entrepreneurship development for grassroots efforts takes time,” says Ocampo.

To teach farmers how to be leaders and independent entrepreneurs, Ocampo’s cornerstone philosophy is this: “It takes patience to change attitudes and teach people the necessary skills. We need to build trust, which cannot be rushed.”

He teaches the Tsaa Laya communities how to magnify their ingenuity and be proud of their local knowledge. Because of their tremendous response, Tsaa Laya is gearing up to make a social impact that could reverberate throughout the Philippines and, possibly, the world.

Tsaa Laya teas, whose variants include lemon ginger, tanglad, pandan, arvensis mint, and java banaba, are available at Bo’s Coffee, Mozaic Living, and Kismet Cafe and Wellness Market.

All photos courtesy of Jamir Ocampo.