Trade Forum Features

Brewing their way to better lives

1 October 2013
ITC News
Putting people before profits and making a sustainable difference in the lives of African coffee producers.

Sarah Robinson, Operations Director of South Africa-based Bean There Coffee Company, has three words tattooed on the inside of her left wrist that sum up the way she runs her business and her life: ‘Be the change’.

‘Had I done the tattoo 10 years ago, it would be “save the world”,’ says Robinson, who has had the tattoo for almost two years. ‘Over the years, a lot happens and you realize it’s not about changing the world but about people along the way and being the change.’

Her experiences in the coffee industry showed her that business and development considerations can coexist. After attending a training course coordinated by the International Trade Centre (ITC) last year, she was inspired to actively seek out women entrepreneurs to provide them with work opportunities.

Her ‘be the change’ mindset led Robinson to leave Canada in September 2005 to join her brother, Jonathan, in South Africa to build up a coffee company certified by Fairtrade International, a standard that ‘offers producers a better deal and improved terms of trade’, according to its website. She made the move armed with a desire to ‘make a difference in a lot of people’s lives’.

Upwards and onwards

The Robinsons had no official training in the coffee business, so they gathered much of their information by researching online, reading books and learning from industry veterans.

‘When some of the people that had been in the industry for a long time, when they heard what we were going to do, they were like, “That’s not going to work,” South Africans will never drink African coffee, they don’t like single-origin coffee,’ recalls Robinson. ‘And so we didn’t have a whole lot of support from our local industry, but we just kept going.’

The Robinsons have come a long way since then, moving out of their first office – the garage of Jonathan’s house – and adding to their staff of one employee, who was hired in the second year of business.

They had big plans for their business from the start: Bean There is the first Fairtrade-certified coffee roaster in South Africa. Fairtrade is a trading partnership that contributes to ‘sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers’, according to its website. As such, the company pays the producers they partner with fair wages, a step towards creating a sustainable difference in their lives.

‘One of the things I’m really proud of is that we do what we say we do,’ says Robinson. ‘I can say I’ve met the farmers who grow our coffee. I’ve picked coffee myself and discussed the challenges that people in Ethiopia are facing.’

Today, Bean There employs 28 workers at two facilities, with the main branch in Johannesburg and the other in Cape Town. The company has 400 regular customers, most of them based in South Africa, who order a total of 7.2 tonnes of coffee every month.

Getting to the source

In the first four years of business, the company doubled its turnover every year, according to Robinson. Last year was a ‘tough year’ with no growth, but things are looking better in 2013.

The growth of their business reflects the larger shift in the world coffee industry, says Robinson. In other words, more people are starting to pay attention to where the beans come from.

Bean There sources the bulk of its coffee from Ethiopia, buying 960 bags of coffee a year, with each bag weighing 60 kilograms. The company also buys from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These buying patterns are in line with the company’s mission to buy and sell single-origin coffee in Africa, ensuring that all workers in the supply chain are paid and treated fairly.

‘Our primary motivations have strengthened because they’ve been questioned by others,’ says Robinson. ‘And we’ve had to defend them, and as we’ve done that, we’ve reminded ourselves why we are here, what we are trying to do, how we are trying to do it.’

The desire to put ‘people before profits and even products’ is in no small part aimed at giving women the opportunity to work and grow with the company, she says.

Empowering women

In August 2012, Robinson attended a leadership training course coordinated by ITC and the International Women’s Coffee Association in Nairobi, Kenya, where she met women entrepreneurs from all over Africa, Guatemala, Japan and the United States of America.

‘One of the most amazing things for me there was that it really brought into focus the challenges faced by women in coffee, and particularly in African coffee,’ says Robinson. ‘I’ve never been a big feminist, but learning about it, and the options and the hardships, really got me thinking about how we do trade. Even though we’re doing it fairly, we haven’t been checking on the women’s side.’

The training course propelled Robinson to work towards the empowerment of women in the coffee industry by providing them with job opportunities, doing business with them, and equipping them to take on leadership roles in their communities.

Planning for the future

At its core, Bean There was formed to create jobs. The company is developing a training school for young people who have finished their secondary education, as well as members of the public. The programme would cover basic business concepts, such as stock control and ordering of supplies, as well as barista training and strategies to improve coffee quality. The Robinsons are looking for funding to get the school up and running.

The next step would be to set up mobile coffee shops – cars and trucks installed with espresso machines – as small-business initiatives for graduates of the training school aimed at creating jobs and growing the coffee market.

These are steps towards realizing the ultimate goal: making a sustainable difference in the lives of African coffee producers. ‘The more income they bring in, the more ownership they get, and they eventually own the business,’ says Robinson. ‘I think the potential for African coffee is huge.’