On his travels, Jonathan Robinson (45) met an old friend who started a fairly traded coffee enterprise in Robinson’s country of birth, Canada. This encounter sparked his passion for creating sustainable livelihoods for small-scale coffee farmers throughout sub–Saharan Africa. In 2005 he founded his own fairly traded coffee business, Bean There Coffee Company.
Robinson says his grandmother Olga, affectionately known as Polly, first introduced him to the magic behind coffee at age 13. “Polly introduced me to coffee when I was a kid. She used to say ‘if you can have coffee without sugar, you will fall in love with the flavours and aromas and you will be forever changed,’ and she was right,” he says.
Born to a Canadian mother and a South African father, Robinson started this business in his Johannesburg home garage after he quit his job 2001. “I’ve always loved coffee, but what really inspired me is the model of fair trade. The fact that you can have a business doing something you love and you could impact the lives of small-scale farmers as well,” he says.
Today, Robinson’s company is run from two roasteries in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Bean There Coffee sources all their coffee directly from farming cooperatives made up of small-scale farmers in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He explains the concept of fair trade as a model of fairness that aims to give the “little man a larger slice of the pie.”
“It’s really just about trading fairly with people and giving them the price that they deserve. A fair price for their product,” he emphasises.
“I wanted to be involved in a business that makes an impact on farmers who don’t have a whole lot of options. I want to give them market access so they can get more money, so they can get their kids access to education and live better lives and generate more income, because that’s what they deserve.”
Robinson’s products are fair-trade certified with Fairtrade, Ecocert and the Rainforest Alliance. He believes had it not been for his chartered accountant wife Nicole, the Bean There Coffee Company would never have attained the success it has today.
“My wife was quite instrumental from a business point of view, she has certainly helped with plans and budgets and all those sorts of things. If it wasn’t for my wife Bean There would not exist. In the early days where we were just putting money into the business and not drawing a salary she came in and worked her magic,” he says.
He adds that he has worked for years modifying his own model of fair trade that seeks to build sustainable relationships with coffee farmers in Africa. “Our model of fair trade is a little bit different in that we do direct fair trade. We believe in having long-term relationships with the community that we buy from. Instead of just buying fairly traded coffee we like to visit at see that the money is going to the right places,” Robinson says.
“When I started I was told that I could never make a business in African coffee…”
As an entrepreneur with a new idea, Robinson believes that people will always criticize you. The coffee roaster says he had encountered many naysayers who believed that he could never make a business in Mzansi exclusively sourcing coffee from Africa.
“When I started I was told that I could never make a business in African coffee and that South Africans don’t have the right palates for it and they don’t like it,” says Robinson.
Fifteen years down the line, Robinson now hopes to see more appreciation amongst coffee lovers for the small-scale farmers who hand pick beans in remote mountainous villages in Africa. He believes that people who produce such a labour-intensive product deserve better than the “raw deal” that they are currently getting.
“I really think people need to be aware of the price that the farmers are receiving for the coffee they produce. I would really love to see more of the coffee being traded fairly because farmers receive a raw deal, they don’t get the price that they deserve,” he stresses.
Robinson advises young entrepreneurs to be patient when starting a new venture. “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, and cashflow is reality,” he says. “As an entrepreneur growing your turnover is one thing, making sure that you have a profit is another thing, but making sure that you have cash in the bank is everything.”
He hopes to instill this passion for coffee into his children and has started taking them on his trips to the coffee farmers he trades with in Africa. Robinson plans to one day pass baton of his coffee enterprise to his daughter Jessica (15) and son Ethan (11).