Can Grandma’s tea recipe change the life of Haitian farmers? Meet the young social entrepreneur whose thirst for impact is helping to plant the seeds of change.
What if planting a tree in a small island nation that’s been devastated by centuries of deforestation cost less than 40 cents? What if those trees in that same nation—Haiti, the most impoverished in the western hemisphere—could triple a farming household’s income?
Those aren’t hypotheticals, so another question logically follows: If a single intervention like planting a tree can have such outsized economic effects, why aren’t we all creating business plans that subsidize reforestation in Haiti?
To be clear, we know there are countless causes out there—many just as urgent and worthy—but we were nonetheless deeply curious to learn how a Pittsburgh-bred entrepreneur in his early twenties hit on the idea for planting trees in the Caribbean using, of all things, an old family tea recipe.
Planting a single tree for a Haitian farmer is the equivalent of a monetary bond worth more than a typical year’s wages
“It would probably be a nicer, cooler, better story if I said I wanted to do the trees first,” said Mark Sotomayor, now a college senior and the founder of Treecup Tea. “But it started with my grandma’s chai tea recipe, which I have been drinking my whole life.”
Mark recalls a particular visit to his mother’s house during his sophomore year of college, where he had been studying entrepreneurship with the hope of hatching a business concept he could transition into full-time after graduating.
The scent combo of cinnamon, anise, and sweetened black tea is a familiar one in the Sotomayor household. It was likely in the air when Mark’s mother Vitalia brewed a pitcher of her own mother’s signature Peruvian chai and put it in front of her son.
“I drank the whole pitcher in that sitting,” Mark said. “I told my mom the tea was so good, she could sell it.” Vitalia’s response to her son? “You’re the one studying entrepreneurship.” And thus began a series of events illustrating one of Mark’s apparent strengths as a young social entrepreneur—the ability to recognize a good suggestion and take it seriously.
Thirsting to Make a Difference
The next great suggestion came when Mark returned to Pittsburgh for an event, with prototypes of his new product in tow. “I’m set up at my booth and tent, pitching my grandma’s tea, packaged in these old dairy bottles,” Mark remembered. “This man comes up, and he’s trying the tea and telling me he’s an entrepreneurship professor.”
Mark told the professor, Dave Brauer, that he was studying entrepreneurship and wanted to attach his tea to a cause and had been actively researching viable options suited to both his personal interests, and his interest in differentiating his tea from existing brands. Dave asked Mark if he knew much about the history of Haiti, the former French colony known as the site of the only successful slave revolt against a colonial power.
Following the violent revolution in 1804, significant reparations were among the terms of France’s treaty recognizing Haitian independence in 1825. Over the next century, much of Haiti’s trees were felled and exported to pay the debt. Natural disasters, population growth, and the widespread use of charcoal cooking fuel accelerated the trend, and by 2000, 98% of the country had been deforested, with severe repercussions for landslides, flooding, and biodiversity.
Seeding Social Impact
Dave shared that planting a single tree for a Haitian farmer is the equivalent of a monetary bond worth more than a typical year’s wages. He recommended that Mark get in touch with Haiti Friends, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that has planted more than 2 million trees through its Haiti Timber Re-Introduction Program, or HTRIP.
Through that chance meeting, Mark found a mission, a tagline, and even a company name. He incorporated Treecup in late 2017 and started working with HTRIP right from the start. As promised by the slogan “buy a tea, plant a tree,” the company’s one-for-one model has already supported the planting of 15,000 trees.
Each week, one of these is featured on Treecup’s website in a Tree of the Week video, which is also accessible through a QR code on each Treecup product. Mark has traveled to Haiti to help plant saplings himself, but he stresses that the real work is “way more difficult than just dropping seeds.”
In the months ahead of each rainy season (April-October) when they are able to plant, HTRIP staff work to identify a specific farming community where the planting will happen. They also offer a 10-month training program in permaculture and agroforestry—all aimed at equipping farmers to grow and tend the trees, restore soil productivity, and improve the overall quality of their lives.
Mark hopes to join the Haitian team on the ground again this year, if travel restrictions ease in time for the 2020 effort. But some of the 22-year-old’s more imminent plans include closing the books on his undergraduate studies, rejoining his mother and cofounder Vitalia in the Pittsburgh commercial kitchen where they make the tea, and transitioning Treecup’s packaging from a biodegradable plastic to glass.
Spend for Good: Outside of their vendors in Greater Pittsburgh, Treecup’s tea is available online in sweetened and unsweetened variety packs that allow you to try all six of their teas AND plant 12 trees.