Who’s behind South Africa’s first certified Fair Trade coffee roaster, Bean There? And why did he have a niggling feeling? Founder Jono Robinson talked to SUSAN SEGAR
Jono, 44, was born in Canada and grew up in Johannesburg, where he still lives with his marketing director wife Nicky and their two children
Jono: ‘We can do well and do good at the same time’
‘BY THE TIME I was in my twenties, I had a great career. I had worked for IBM and Dimension Data in the IT boom days and life was financially very good. But all along, I had this niggling feeling that I wanted to do something more meaningful.
I realised being successful in business would only count if I could simultaneously impact the world in some way. I’ve believed in God my whole life but there’s a point where you ask, ‘What does my faith mean to me?’ I kept asking God what He wanted me to do with this one life that I had. I wanted it to count.
The stockmarket crash of 2001 motivated a change: Nicky and I decided to travel the world and in 2002, we set off on a 27 000 km road trip through the US and Canada and then backpacked through Europe. In Canada my mother connected me with Hugo Ciro, founder of Level Ground Trading, who introduced me to the model of Direct Fair Trade.
I became very keen to replicate this model in an African context. I’ve loved coffee since my grandmother introduced me to it as a child, and I loved the fact that via Direct Fair Trade you can have a business in something you enjoy while positively impacting the lives of small-scale farmers.
In Bean There’s Direct Fair Trade model, small-scale coffee farmers receive fair payment for their coffee while customers get to enjoy quality coffee
After we returned to South Africa I worked for two years for the NGO Starfish, then decided to start my own coffee business. I bought my first lot of coffee in Ethiopia and started Bean There Coffee Company in my garage in 2005. A year later, we started buying coffee in Tanzania, then Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coffee’s an area in which the first world has exploited the third world by paying low prices to coffee farmers who don’t have access to markets. The model of Direct Fair Trade ensures that producers receive fair payment for their coffee. This ensures community development, empowerment and sustainability.
‘we ensure money gets back to the farmers’
We work with co-operatives who represent anything from 600 to 4000 small-scale coffee farmers. The advantage of being in a co-op is that producers get fair payment and if there’s a profit from the sale of their coffee, they receive a second payment. We visit our producers each year to ensure the money we pay is getting to the farmers who produced the incredible coffee we enjoy. These trips remind me of why we do what we do, as we’re privileged to hear the farmers’ stories and witness the change that Fair Trade can make. One example is Kenyan farmer Agnes Kanja. Thanks to skilful and dedicated coffee farming, she’s moved from a small hut to a brick house with gutters, electricity and a television, and has been elected as her co-op’s district chief.
A potential investor once told me our company wasn’t making enough money because our margins were too tight and I should buy cheaper coffee for better profit. I told him he didn’t understand why I’m in this business. I left the corporate world to pursue something that helps change the lives of small scale farmers and leaves a legacy, and I firmly believe we can do well and do good at the same time.
Jono in Kenya with co-op district head Agnes. Fair Trade coffee farming has enabled her to live in a brick house with gutters and electricity
Interestingly, Fair Trade principles are aligned with biblical principles. Both try to make a difference in people’s lives, just as Jesus did with the poor, and are concerned with how you treat people, how you treat your staff and how you try to come alongside people in times of need.
Twelve years since we launched, Bean There has three retail roasting locations where you can buy freshly roasted beans and enjoy a coffee. I am delighted we’re able to provide meaningful employment in South Africa and, through our network of producers in six African countries, we can help alleviate poverty and provide opportunities for advancement. I believe God has been directing Bean There right from the start, opening doors in the right places and closing some in the wrong ones!’