Coffee has opened many doors for me. It was one of the key products in our family’s café in New Zealand. It is the center of my café in Australia that that has been a source of economic support for our health and education program in Argentina since 2013. I once bought a coffee roaster with my friend John and learned how to roast. I traveled to various coffee producing countries including Kenya, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. I have met hundreds, if not thousands of people making coffee in different parts of the world. Coffee is the source of great ‘value’ in my life!
The underlying question that I often ask myself is this: If I was born in Kenya, Nicaragua or any other country that produces coffee, would the value that I have received from coffee be the same?
My time in Argentina has been a phenomenal learning experience. Buenos Aires has taught me more about the world than I ever could have imagined. The source of my education has been the kids of Food or Thought in Monte Chingolo. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, children are the world’s best teachers, and thanks to the magical powers of coffee, my team and I have been learning from Argentine kids for the last 6 years.
Before my Kenyan trip almost a decade ago, we collected tips from my café, The Final Step, to take with us and support an orphanage in a town called Thika. We have a family friend who lived in Kenya at the time who purchased rice and beans for the orphanage every month until the money ran out. We visited the orphanage, dragging along with us a big bag of used clothes that I had collected from Melbourne. I also taught a music class with the kids. I feel that the roots of coffee are not the only cultural tradition that began in the African continent. All you have to do is watch African kids sing and dance to understand the deep connection that world music has in Africa! I can still see their smiles and their bodies that moved like they were independent from their heads.
When I returned from Kenya, we began collecting tips from The Final Step to donate to various causes for people in need around the world. In the beginning, we donated tips to Red Cross projects. We would donate the money and receive a donation certificate: Thank you for your kind donation of $X to the Pakistani Earthquake Appeal. It felt good in a way, but for me, it lacked any kind of connection with where the money was going.
The next step was donating to a friend who was working with women in Cambodia. We would put money into her account and she would purchase resources for the project and send us photos. There was a little more connection via this method as we could see exactly where the money was going, but after a while, there was a communication breakdown and that idea fell through. For me, what we were contributing was minimal!
From there we decided to truly harness the power of coffee. It was time to have complete control over what was happening with the money that we were raising. a couple of friends and I created Social Opportunity Group (SOG). I moved to Argentina and join forces with Valeria (my Argentine friend) and started our first project, Food for Thought, using the profits of The Final Step as the motor behind the machine. The profits don’t cover all of the costs necessary to run an education project such as Food for Thought, but so far with fundraising and donations, we have been able to function year to year for the last six.
There are a couple of key players in Melbourne making sure that everything runs smoothly. Jason, who is SOG’s Australian director, oversees the business side of things at The Final Step and also manages the team of Australian volunteers. Dale, who is the manager looking after the day to day running of the café. We also have a dedicated team of volunteers who play a vital role in the execution of all of our events in Australia.
The cafe’s motto is ‘The Final Step in the long journey that is coffee’. When we changed the café into a social enterprise, we added another line. ‘The First Step towards sustainable social change’. What is sustainable social change? To me, sustainable social change is a direction. Because of our changing world, it is impossible to say if anything is truly sustainable. Positive change today may not be tomorrow. Only when we look back at history can we truly say whether or not the change was positive, or lasting.
I’ll give you an example. On paper, if you were to build a well in a village that saves the women of that village a four-hour return trip to collect water, you could call that sustainable social change. If, as a result of the women spending more time at home because of the short trip to the new village well, domestic violence rates drastically rose, you might not now call that sustainable social change. This actually happened.
Soledad, who has been with us for the last 5 years will soon be taking over as Food for Thought’s director on the ground in Argentina. Between her and I, we are constantly molding and reforming the project to best fit the kids of Monte Chingolo. I believe in the direction that we are moving in with Food for Thought. We don’t always get it right, but we are learning as we go, assessing, and improving. This year we are dropping back our time with the older kids and focussing on the younger ones because we believe that if we put the work in with the children at a younger age, they are more likely to make better decisions for themselves in the future! We’ll see when we look back in a couple of years whether it was the right decision or not!
As I have mentioned, I feel a responsibility as a café owner who takes part in an industry that causes so much damage. Even though we might be making a ‘sustainable social change’ in education via our social enterprise café, I’m not sure if we have truly taken advantage of the real power of coffee! I believe that the best form of education comes from the example that one sets. Our actions shout more about us than our mouths!
What can we do as an organisation that has benefitted so much from coffee to return the favour? Guilt is an interesting sensation. On one side it doesn’t serve us because of the unnecessary anxiety that it creates, but on the other side, it is a catalyst for action. It can be the motivator for a push towards better things. It’s a little bit like the ego in a way that it is the source of a lot of suffering, but also an essential ingredient for positive change!
I feel guilty for being the owner of a cafe that benefits from a style of business that has an uneven distribution of ‘value’ at the core of its functioning, but I also like the fact that that guilty feeling is igniting a fire underneath my feet! The fruit of knowledge of good and evil. I can’t help but think of Star Wars Parallels: ‘the force’ and ‘the dark side’. What opportunities do we have to harness the force and overcome the dark side of coffee?
To be continued…