January 9, 2019

How Coffee Initiatives Can Help Save Lives


Coffee is linked to charitable and social justice causes in many ways, with some more effective than others. But what does an effective development program look like? And how can the coffee industry help when disaster strikes?

Read on to find out more about how social enterprise works in the coffee industry, and how one agency is helping in the Sulawesi aid efforts.

You may also like How Has The 2018 Sulawesi Disaster Affected Indonesian Coffee?

Farmers in Khounsai review coffee practices. Sekong Province, Laos. Credit: Nicole Motteux

What Is Social Enterprise?

Social enterprise programs are nothing new in the coffee industry. Some coffee-producing regions have extreme poverty and lack effective infrastructure. In the highly volatile coffee market, producers and their families are incredibly vulnerable. The economic sustainability of the coffee industry is strongly linked to the social sustainability of communities around the world.

So it’s not surprising that there are many efforts to tie coffee consumption to social development. The term “social enterprise” simply means using commercial business to support social improvement.

Initiatives like Fairtrade and direct trade may come to mind, but there are many other social enterprise models in the coffee industry. Coffee cooperatives, barista training programs, and humanitarian coffee retailers are other examples of using commercial strategies to improve social and environmental wellbeing.

Learn more in Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Producers review government targets in the coffee-growing area of southern Laos. Credit: Nicole Motteux

Why Use Social Enterprise?

As a development practitioner with more than 20 years of experience, I like the social enterprise model. It means that the profits from our daily cup of coffee go to dedicated agencies with in-depth knowledge and practical understanding. These kind of organizations know how to work with government, local communities, and others to bring long-lasting social and economic change.

With social enterprise, the profits do not pass through numerous agencies, each taking a slice of the pie. This model involves dealing directly with communities and minimizes administrative costs.

A woman dries coffee as part of a skills-development program in Masina, Guji, Ethiopia. Credit: Habib Maarbani, Project Origin

International development practices have evolved over the years. Development has shifted away from “top down” approaches of telling marginalized people what to do and simply donating funds to one-off projects.

Today, the international development community embraces participatory methods that give affected people a voice about what is to be done and by whom based on local realities.

The United Nations identifies a need for social development to end poverty with “strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.”

An event at Little Things Coffee in Melbourne supports World Vision Australia programs. Credit: Little Things Coffee

But why does this matter for the coffee industry? If you are making a choice to buy socially responsible coffee, you want to know it is actually benefiting the people it claims to help. Social enterprise is a way of ensuring that this happens.

For your coffee choices to make a difference, the organization needs a firm theoretical and practical foundation. With this, it can respond effectively to the different and changing needs of the people it supports.

Let’s take a look at some concrete examples.

The World Vision Australia emergency team at work in Sulawesi. Credit: World Vision

The Sulawesi Earthquake & Tsunami

On September 28th, 2018, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit the Central Sulawesi region of Indonesia. It triggered widespread damage and a powerful tsunami. And it came just two months after an earlier earthquake left 500 dead and many more displaced on the nearby island of Lombok. More recently, Indonesia was hit by another deadly tsunami on December 23, 2018.

UN relief agencies called the September devastation “beyond imagination” and initially predicted a six-month relief operation at a cost of more than US $100 million.

Jeff Neilson is a geographer from the University of Sydney who has worked with coffee producers in Sulawesi for over 15 years. He tells me that the September tragedy missed South Sulawesi’s main coffee producing regions, such as Toraja, which produces specialty coffee. He says that many displaced people from the affected regions sought shelter with family and friends in the coffee highlands.

Learn more in How Has The 2018 Sulawesi Disaster Affected Indonesian Coffee?

Producer Pak Kasim of Enrekang District, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Credit: Jeff Neilson

Within a day of the tsunami, I received an email from Junus David, Operations Manager at World Vision Australia. We had been due to meet in Melbourne that week to discuss World Vision’s global coffee programs. But he was already in Jakarta waiting for the damaged Palu airport to be reopened to civilian traffic.

World Vision is an evangelical Christian organization that “partners with children, families, and their communities to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”

Junus tells me that the Indonesian branch knows the region, speaks the language, and are sensitive to local culture and customs. “This is critical when responding to the needs of the most vulnerable,” he says.

“Our earthquake response focused on distributing emergency supplies, including family household items, shelter kits, and hygiene supplies. A key focus is child protection and educational programs for children, also water, sanitation and hygiene. We set up a feeding centre in World Vision’s office compound in Palu City to help mothers care for and feed their children.”

Junus David and the Wahana Visi Indonesia emergency team in Sulawesi. Credit: World Vision Australia

Supporting Disaster Relief With Coffee

World Vision Australia uses commercial business practices to raise money for social, environmental, and financial projects in developing countries. Profits go to support educational programs, community development and emergency and relief efforts, such as that in Sulawesi.

One of the ways Word Vision Australia raises funds is through coffee. In his role as a World Vision Australia ambassador, Hugh Jackman visited Ethiopia to produce a documentary on the roots of coffee trade and production. There, he met a coffee producer named Dukale who together with his wife, Adandesh, was building a coffee production enterprise to lift his family out poverty.

Hugh Jackman in his role with the Laughing Man Foundation. Credit: Laughing Man Foundation

Funding Projects Through Cafés

Inspired by the experience, Hugh Jackman founded the Laughing Man Foundation. The organization supports coffee farming communities and has a focus on “sustainable individuals, family, and community.”

It does this through sales of Fairtrade roasted coffee and two cafés in New York City. Proceeds support housing improvements and college scholarships for the members of the COOCENTRAL coffee cooperative in Huila, Colombia.

Jianni Pattiradjawane at Little Things Coffee. Credit: Nicole Motteux

In 2016, World Vision Australia established Little Things Coffee in Melbourne. The social enterprise café was inspired by Laughing Man’s efforts.

Jianni Pattiradjawane is the Business Development Manager of Little Things Coffee. He tells me that it uses 100% of the profits from its daily coffee sales to fund World Vision Australia’s emergency relief work and community development projects. He says that the projects assist millions of people in more than 90 countries.

Little Things Coffee roasts, sells, and serves bags of “specialty grade, ethically sourced, and certified organic, small-batch roasted coffee” to support its initiatives. Jianni says that quality, presentation, and scale are key to increasing business turnover and further funding of World Vision Australia’s programs.

The team at Little Things Coffee. Credit: Nicole Motteux

Make Your Coffee Count

Humanitarian efforts and disaster relief are complicated projects that most of us are not qualified to undertake. Development must be well-organized and properly directed to avoid wasting resources or even worsening problems.

But we can support social enterprise projects and contribute to meaningful change through our consumer choices. Why not take a look at which organizations that are aligned with your values use social enterprise? By making informed choices, our cups of coffee can save lives.

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Written with input by Lilani Goonesena and image editing by Angie Lázaro.

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