This coffee's kick isn't just in the caffeine

Coffee and beans
Coffee and beans

I Love Coffee, a Cape-based social enterprise that trains and employs deaf baristas to work as front-line staff in its stores, has recently embarked on a bold expansion drive that will potentially see it opening as many as five new outlets over the next twelve months.

The company started with successful move earlier this year, to its current location within the Publicis building in Harrington street. Here, the company is functioning as the in-house catering and coffee provider to ten agencies that fall under the Publicis umbrella and share the space, and the team at the helm of the business have big plans for the foreseeable future.

Mike Morritt-Smith, CFO and head of quality in the organisation, says I Love Coffee is busy setting up a flagship site in Strand Street, and is negotiating to open outlets in a hospital in Johannesburg, at the head office of a global fitness brand, as well as at another location in the Cape.

From just one barista...

A little over a year ago, ILC had one barista, and was operating from a tiny site in Claremont. Their current growth landscape is truly remarkable, testament to the fact that the two directors understood from day one that a 'social' brand must offer more than just its social value proposition to succeed.

Morritt-Smith was instrumental in setting up Truth Coffee, says Gary Hopkins, co-founder and head of marketing and staff development. According to Hopkins, Morritt-Smith knows more than most about how to grow a coffee brand, and consistently deliver an exceptional product. It is the story that gets the foot in the door, Hopkins argues, but the overall offering that keeps it there.

The story is remarkable. While exploring various social enterprise models, Hopkins was introduced to the social challenges facing the deaf community: non-recognition of sign language; comparatively poor levels of education; widespread unemployment and marginalisation – and the idea of coffee hit home as a way of helping people with and without disabilities to spend time together.

The mission, he says, is to normalise deaf employment, by showcasing the many contributions the deaf can make to the success of an organisation. Ultimately, he says, ILC would like to see a network of corporate and retail cafés throughout the country.

The usual challenges

Despite the usual challenges that face social enterprises in SA – limited access to start-up capital, difficulty in raising funding, tension between social and commercial activities – the team at ILC have managed to make significant impact in a relatively short space of time.

They have directly impacted the lives of 14 staff members who have been or are in their employ, all of whom were unemployed before joining ILC. They have also served in excess of 700+ corporate clients, who can either now sign at some level, or are at least aware of South African sign language – brochures and video feeds at their tills help educate people on the basics – while some of their customers have even gone on to take formal sign language lessons. The team will soon be offering classes in their cafés.

Most importantly, says Hopkins, the deaf community has embraced ILC and "fed back to us that they have experienced a greater sense of understanding and acceptance within the hearing community through their association with us".

Above and beyond

It has not all been smooth sailing. Deafness, believes Morritt-Smith, is often overlooked among disabilities, simply because isn't as immediately visible as some other physical disabilities. By association, he says, ILC's biggest challenge has been to engage with big business and funders to support its vision. He speaks of a "certain curiosity factor" and attracting interest and media support, but, he adds "genuine buy-in is rare". For the most part, ILC has had to rely on its own resources and tenacity. Funding and recognition from the SAB Foundation helped tremendously (ILC were Finalists in the annual Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards), but even with their support, the company had to go "above and beyond" to achieve success, he says.

This attitude of going above and beyond is evident when you engage with the company first-hand. Simply put, the coffee is as good as any you can find in Cape Town, while interaction with both the deaf and hearing staff makes it clear that this is a business that puts its people at the heart of its success. Customer-focused and product-driven, these guys genuinely try and live up to their self-styled moniker of the "world’s most caring coffee brand". They invest heavily in their deaf staff, both on the job and in their lives outside of work.

One example is Thembelihle Qezu. Thembe was born deaf and only acquired language at the age of nine when he was enrolled at a school for the deaf in Worcester. He completed his schooling at the National Institute for the Deaf, where he qualified in hospitality. He was sent home to await an internship to complete his graduation. He waited six months before he was interned at I Love Coffee. One of the first employees, he is now our Head Barista and Assistant Manager of the corporate store. Hopkins describes him as a "natural teacher", saying he has taught barista skills to both deaf and hearing people. As soon as funding allows, he will be sent on a nine-month accreditation process to become the first accredited deaf barista trainer in the world.

"Despite choosing not to speak, he has exceptional communication skills and often operates the cafe on his own. He has also requested to develop his kitchen skills and is now working under ILC's head chef to do so," says Hopkins.

The partnership model

The team at ILC have also developed a range of compostable coffee pods, in keeping with their ethos of care and social responsibility. These are sold at their corporate store, as well as direct to consumers, guesthouses and boutique hotels. They are hoping to grow this avenue to support their ultimate vision of an I Love Coffee roastery, which will allow them to increase impact and absorb the bulk of their trainees into employment, whilst opening channels for new partnerships and supply contracts.

The entire model, they say, is built on partnerships. The corporate store is an example of a partnership between ILC and Publicis. Under the B-BBEE Codes, they support ILC from an enterprise development perspective through subsidised rental and other assistance, and in return ILC provides them with the points they need for their BEE Scorecard and their staff with an exceptional product. It is a model ILC hopes to replicate nationally.

Given their firm vision and their growth to date, not many people would bet against this team achieving all their goals. As the founders put it: as I Love Coffee grows, nobody will be left behind.

Anton Ressel is a business strategist, social commentator and writer. He is a director of the Fetola Foundation and founder and director of ARC Consultinga small business specialist agency that offers mentorship, support and other services to entrepreneurs and emerging businesses nationally.

Visit to find out more, or contact Gary Hopkins on

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