Best Coffee Beans in South Africa – The Story of How Bean There Got Here

Best Coffee Beans in South Africa – The Story of How Bean There Got Here

On our quest to find the best coffee beans in our country, we set out to interview a few well-known, and a few lesser-known roasteries. We wanted to find out how they started, what their vision for the future of their business – all the great stuff that makes a brand who and what they are.

Garnering feedback was fun, but when Bean There had their publicist send us some history and insight into Bean There’s journey, we were so dazzled by it, we decided they deserved their very own feature.

While we’re in the business of coffee machines and understand the need for both artisanal coffee bean roasting living in harmony with mass-batch roasting, we also appreciate a company that holds the morals, ethics, business standard and absolute passion for their craft.

A Quick Q&A With Jonathan Robinson – Founder of Bean There Coffee Company

Bean There Fair Trade Coffee - Founder Jonathan Robinson (Image Credit - Gone Travelling

Bean There Fair Trade Coffee – Founder Jonathan Robinson (Image Credit – Gone Travelling

  • What is your most popular coffee – Cappuccino, Africano, etc.?

At all three of our roasteries, cappuccinos are most popular, although our Africano (African Americano) is also a top pick. Lately, we have also seen an increase in our Cortado / Piccolo orders.

  • What is your most popular coffee roast?

Our Ethiopian Sidamo continues to be our most popular coffee. It is a great all-rounder, beautifully balanced and performs well in all applications.

  • How have you grown since starting out commercially?

Established in 2005, selling coffee out of my garage, we now have three roasting locations in two cities – Joburg (44 Stanley Ave Milpark and 111 Smit Street in Braamfontein) and Cape Town (58 Wale Street), supplying hotels, lodges, restaurants, and cafes. Our coffee is also available from selected Pick n Pay’s, Spars, and at Dis-Chem nationwide.

  • Anything new in the pipeline for Bean There?

A key long-term plan for us is to get even closer to the producer side of the things. Although we pay our producers fair trade premiums and support agronomy training initiatives, we would like to extend our reach by connecting consumers of coffee with our small-scale producers in a more meaningful and transparent manner. I have a few ideas on how to do this through a new programme, focussing on education and agronomy training within the communities we work with. It’s a big goal but we are excited about the prospect of extending our impact – watch this space!

Bean There Coffee Company – The Ethical Entrepreneur

Bean There Roasteries display old bicycles on the wall. The bicycle at 44 Stanley Avenue is from Tanzania and the one at 58 Wale Street is from Ethiopia. Bean There gave the coffee farmers a new bicycle in exchange for their old bicycles.

 

“My grandmother Olga, introduced me to coffee when I was about 12. She used to drink it black with a square of dark chocolate. She’d say to us as kids, ‘try coffee without sugar, you’ll taste the flavours. It will revolutionise your life’ – it did.” – Jonathan Robinson, founder of Bean There Coffee Company.

Bean There Coffee Company, South Africa’s first roaster of certified direct fair trade coffee, was launched on the back of the stock market crash in 2001, a 27 000-kilometre backpacking trip across two continents, and a chance encounter with fair trade protagonist Hugo Ciro, founder of Level Ground Trading.

Launched in 2005 from company founder Jonathan Robinson’s garage, Bean There now operates out of three roasteries; two in Joburg and one in Cape Town. Each year, more than 120 tonnes of fair trade coffee is sourced from small-scale farmers in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Unique to Bean There’s model is that they source all of their coffee directly; “Not many companies do fair trade as an overall buying philosophy, as we do. A lot of companies will add one fair trade coffee to their trade and the rest is commercial. I know of a few others who offer fair trade, but even then, only for a portion of their coffee.”

The coffee trade is a perfect example of how, for decades, the first world has exploited the third world, starting with plantations worked by thousands of African slaves. Much of the coffee sold around the world today still comes from plantations where workers are exploited. In Robinson’s view, this model must go; “by building sustainable relationships with our producers, we can offer the farmers a higher price, regardless of negative market fluctuations.”

What’s unique about Bean There’s model is that they source all of their coffee directly; “Wherever we work, we work with co-operatives who represent anything from 600 to 4000 farmers. We don’t work with any one farmer as they’re all too small to supply coffee to us by themselves. They group themselves together into a co-operative and set up a washing station where they process the coffee. All the farmers in the area bring their yield to a central place where it is processed. The advantage of being in a cooperative is that not only do they get fair trade prices, but they also get the benefit of a second payment if there’s a profit. This profit is shared among the co-operative members.”

Robinson visits his producers regularly and works with them to improve their crops. A typical visit sees him meeting with the leaders of the co-operative as well as individual farmers. “They are small scale farmers themselves but like anyone they can land up being corrupted. It’s no different to any other industry. I always meet them first, then I go and randomly interview farmers, to make sure that what the co-operative leaders tell me is what the farmers are telling me and to get a sense of any issues.”

To demonstrate why he’s determined to continue with fair trade, Robinson cites the story of Agnes Wairimu Kanja, “She is from Kenya. I met her in 2007. She lived in a mud hut. She had two kids, a son and daughter. One was in school and other, she had no school fees for. I immediately thought what can I do to fix this problem? I could have paid the school fees, but I would have just perpetuated a cycle of aid. The real benefit of fair trade is saying, ‘Agnes, you make amazing coffee. We’ll buy your coffee at a great price and that enables you to sort out your own life.’”

Bean There’s purchase of her coffee helped Agnes to go for agronomy training, which resulted in an increase in her coffee yields. Then she started training farmers in her area and was identified as a leader in the community. “The change in Agnes’ life since I met her has been phenomenal. When I saw her last in February, 2017, she had a brick house and roof gutters. We sat on the couch in her lounge, with Batman playing on television in the background and looked at some of her Facebook photos on her iPhone. Agnes has taken control of her own life, coffee has played a big part.”

Robinson does not have any plans at present to expand Bean There into any more countries. A key long-term plan is to get even closer to the producer side. “I have a few ideas on how to do this through a new programme, focussing on education and agronomy training within the communities we work with. If we do both, we’ll cover both ends of the spectrum.”

Consulting widely to assess where and how to source coffee and do fair trade, Robinson’s main priority is to find great coffee. “Although fair trade is why we are in business, we don’t lead with fair trade ever. 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 wanted our coffee purchases to be done out of charity, it disrespects the incredible coffee and the farmers that work so hard to produce it.”

Going back to where it all started, Bean There launched its first Olga’s Reserve in 2010, in honour of Robinson’s beloved paternal grandmother. “We buy between five and ten bags of really amazing coffee from one particular community – and we don’t repeat it. Then R40 a kilogram goes back to the community. We have done this a few times with Olga’s Reserve and have done all sorts of things for the communities with the money raised over the years, including installing solar panels, putting a roof on a school, supplying farming tools and transforming classrooms.”

Coffee Bean Sustainability in South Africa – How Bean There is Bossing the Business

Bean There’s take-away coffee cups are 100% compostable.

Bean There’s take-away coffee cups are 100% compostable.

  1. Bean There Coffee Company is South Africa’s first roaster of Certified Fairtrade coffee.
  2. Bean There was established in 2005 and began operating in founder, Jonathan Robinson’s garage. They now have three locations in two cities – Joburg and Cape Town.
  3. Bean There’s take-away coffee cups are 100% compostable.
  4. Bean There’s used coffee grounds are given to a local mushroom farm for use as compost
  5. The green bean coffee sacks are sold and donated to various recycling projects.
  6. The Bean There roasteries display old bicycles on the wall. The bicycle at 44 Stanley Avenue is from Tanzania and the one at 58 Wale Street is from Ethiopia. Bean There gave the coffee farmers a new bicycle in exchange for their old bicycles.
  7. Bean There is the only roaster of DR Congo coffee in South Africa.
  8. Our Ethiopia Sidamo and DR Congo coffees are Ecocert Organic Certified.
  9. Our Tanzania Mbinga coffee is Rainforest Alliance Certified.
  10. Our Burundi Musema Co-op uses an eco-pulper which reduces water usage during processing
  11. All our coffees are sourced from the African continent which means we have a low carbon footprint

More About The Owner Jonathan Robinson – The Conscious Connoisseur

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.” Twelve years later, Bean There has three roasting 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 13 and nine, 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.”

Where Can You Find Bean There Stores?

  • 44 Stanley Avenue, Milpark, 2092
  • Monday to Friday:
    • 07:30 – 16:00
  • Saturday:
    • 09:00 – 15:00
  • Sunday:
    • 09:00 – 12:00
  • Public Holidays:
    • Closed
  • 111 Smit Street, Cnr. Eendracht Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2001
  • Monday to Friday:
    • 07:30 – 16:00
  • Saturday:
    • Closed
  • Sunday:
    • Closed
  • Public Holidays:
    • Closed
  • 58 Wale Street, Cape Town, 8000
  • Monday to Friday:
    • 07:30 – 16:00
  • Saturday:
    • Closed
  • Sunday:
    • Closed
  • Public Holidays:
    • Closed

Head on over to Bean There’s website to get your hands on their delicious, ethically sourced and sustainable blends.

Thank you to Bean There and Sarah Waterfield for supplying us with this info.

 

Cover Image Credit: Thinn

 

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