Empowering Africa’s coffee farmers one bean at a time

Johnathan Robinson and his sister Sarah went into business to start coffee roastery, Bean There. finweek caught up with him at their Braamfontein roastery.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

While in Canada in 2002 I met Hugo Ciro from Level Ground Trading who introduced me to the direct fair-trade model. I decided to replicate what he was doing in South America in an African context, although his model is purely wholesale and does not have a store or retail roastery.

When I came back to SA, I didn’t feel it was the right time to start Bean There here. I had the idea, but having worked in corporate for a while and having experienced the IT boom years, I had the joy of financial success, and I wanted to have some significant impact in the country and the continent.

For the first two years after I returned to SA I worked for The Starfish Foundation, raising funds for children who are orphaned or affected by HIV/Aids.

What motivated you to turn it into a business?

At the end of 2004 I travelled to Ethiopia for the first time and spent 10 days there. I didn’t know a lot about coffee at the time.

I knew I wanted to buy from small-scale African coffee farmers and I wanted to replicate the business model I had learnt about from Level Ground Trading, buying directly from farmers and paying them a great price.

Some people look at our business model purely from a financial perspective and ask: “Why do you pay so much for your coffee? You could make so much more money if you just bought lower quality or you negotiated better.”

But that’s not why we are in business. We are in business to make a difference for the farmers, so they can do well and we can do well.

How tough is competition in your sector, and what differentiates your product from others?

There are a lot of roasters in the coffee industry, so we are seeing lots of competition. There are the large roasters like Ciro and Famous Brands.

I suppose we are medium-sized roasters now, but there are certainly small roasters emerging everywhere. It’s perceived to be quite fun and cool, and when you look at the margins you could be forgiven for thinking this is a good business model.

However, coffee is a relatively low-value item so you need some significant volume to pay the rent. What we aren’t seeing is anyone with the same direct fair-trade coffee model.

Ten years down the line we are the only people who do what we do. We source our own coffee and are involved directly with our producers.

We’re also the only roastery to my knowledge that sells exclusively African, fair-trade, and organic coffee, which ensures we have a great carbon footprint. We were one of the first companies to sell compostable cups, and have been on the forefront of environmental and social responsibility in the South African coffee market.

What is your three-year goal for your company?

We want to do more at a producer level and we want to connect our consumers with our coffee producers.

There’s very little connection worldwide between the consumers and the producers of coffee, so we’re working on some projects using technology which will hopefully allow us to bridge that gap.

We would also like to be more involved with agronomy training at a producer level, as we certainly believe that increased yields combined with a fair price is key to lasting change and poverty alleviation.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 30 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.


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