Coffee Connoisseur with a Conscience

A while ago, a potential investor in local roastery Bean There Coffee Company told the owner, Jonathan Robinson, that the company wasn’t making enough money; “He said to me, ‘your margins are too tight … you should buy cheaper coffee and not pay fair trade premiums. Then you’d build much greater profit.’ “I said to him, ‘you obviously don’t understand why I’m in business.’”

Bean There, which Robinson launched in 2005, is South Africa’s first roaster of certified direct fair trade coffee. The company prides itself on being committed to “personally sourcing fair trade, organic African coffee.”Fourteen years later, Bean There has three locations, two in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town, and a network of coffee producers in six African countries.

Having started out in the IT industry after leaving university in the mid-1990s, Robinson left a flourishing career at Dimension Data in 2001 and took a year off to travel with his wife, Nicole. The couple did a 27 000-kilometer road trip through the United States and Canada and backpacked through Europe for a few months. While travelling, they met a Colombian man living in Canada called Hugo Ciro who had started a company called Level Ground Trading, which was being run on the fair trade business model. “This was my first exposure to fair trade coffee. I loved the whole model. I loved the fact that you could have a business in something you loved and make a difference in the lives of others at the same time.”

Robinson returned from his trip abroad convinced of three things; he wanted to have a business in coffee, he wanted to impact the lives of small-scale farmers, and he wanted to do this in an African context.

Bean There was started in 2005 and Robinson’s first buying trip was to the Sidamo region of Ethiopia. “We tasted a whole lot of coffee and, looking back, I’m so glad we started there. If I did it again, that’s exactly where I would start. The Ethiopian Sidamo coffee is so balanced – it worked as a filter coffee, in an aeropress and as an espresso. It’s an all-round, people-pleasing coffee.”

When Bean There started, South Africans were drinking primarily imported Italian coffees or locally roasted blended coffees mostly from South America. “Supermarket shelves had Mocha Javas, Italian Blends or Wiener Mischungs. They were all either imported or South American coffees. There wasn’t a lot of African coffee available, but that certainly is changing. I like to think we had something to do with that.”

The company had small beginnings, operating from Robinson’s garage before moving to bigger premises in a warehouse in Kya Sand in 2007.  In February 2008, Bean There moved into 44 Stanley Avenue, Milpark. In 2011, Bean There opened their doors in Wale Street Cape Town. And in 2014 they added a new production facility at 111 Smit Street in Braamfontein. Since discovering Ethiopian beans back in 2005, the company has added coffees from Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Currently there are at least 150 coffee roasters in South Africa with three main local importers and a few international importers, supplying the whole of South Africa. “What’s unique about our model is that we source all our coffee directly ourselves. We only do African coffee, because this is the continent I love and where I feel we can have the most impact.”

According to Robinson, most roasters of fair trade coffee order via a broker or importer and have no contact with the producers of that coffee.  “That’s fine. We’ve just chosen a different route which is that we want a long-term relationship with the people we trade with. In most cases we have been able to work with the same communities for years. Our plan is to continue in this way.”

Robinson consults widely to assess where and how to source fair trade coffee, but his main priority is to find great coffee. “Although fair trade is why we are in business, we don’t lead with fair trade. We lead with quality coffee. People don’t buy coffee because it is fair trade, they buy it because it is amazing and that’s how it should always be. I never want our coffee purchases to be done out of charity as it doesn’t do any justice to the farmers who produced it.”

During his visits, Robinson tries to incorporate a few adventures along the way; “Just travelling to any of our producer communities is an adventure, especially in the DRC, where roads and infrastructure are challenging. I’ve got so many stories of breakdowns, getting stuck or having to negotiate my way out of sticky situations. I certainly wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a taste for adventure.”

Last time he was in the DRC, he climbed up the active Nyiragongo volcano outside Goma. “We trekked for two days and slept at the top of the volcano, looking down about 800 metres into the hot bubbling molten lava. At night it glows red. We were three and a half thousand metres up. It was freezing cold and I slept in my sleeping bag with every piece of clothing I had with me. It was absolutely incredible.”

Robinson, a father of two children, aged 14 and 11, is an Afro-optimist, a “hopeful realist” who has learnt to “tread lightly”, be wary of “first world problems” and, from the ladies in Congo, to “sing loudly while you work.”

“I didn’t get into this to make a lot of money …. but to create some jobs, feed some families and impact producers’ lives. If I can do that, pay school fees and have some fun, then that’s cool. I’m happy.”