The cup that changed the world

Jonathan Robinson is the proprietor of Bean There, Johannesburg’s only specialist espresso bar offering an exclusive menu of African coffees proudly sporting the international Fair Trade label.

Having worked in IT, Robinson took a year off and with his wife travelled through the United States and Canada in the early part of the new century. They backpacked through Europe, where they met someone from Vancouver Island who had a coffee-roasting business.

On his return to the country Robinson worked for the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, raising funds for kids affected by Aids. But he stored the business model of dealing in fair trade coffee in the back of his mind and in 2005 he began roasting, packing and supplying coffee.

Today Robinson and a company—now the Bean There Coffee Company—supply Fair Trade coffee from Africa to exclusive game lodges and hotels, corporate headquarters and restaurants in Botswana and Namibia.

Earlier this month they opened their first espresso bar, and that is where the Mail & Guardian sought to pick Robinson’s brain about the nitty-gritty of Fair Trade coffee.

Where does the coffee come from and how does it get here?
We source Fair Trade African coffees. I go to Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya and we are about to launch our Rwandan coffee. We find communities that produce amazing coffee and develop a direct relationship with them. We only buy the top 2% of coffee available in the world—and we only do African coffees. At this stage we focus mainly on single-origin coffees, meaning that we don’t blend our coffee. The reason for this is that we want people to get to know a country through its coffee.

The reason we are only doing African coffees is that we believe that for far too long South Africans have been drinking coffees imported from Italy, which have a huge carbon footprint. It is originally sent from Africa, Indonesia and South America, roasted in Italy and sent back here. There is a lot of coffee around from South America and yet on our own doorstep we have some of the best, if not the best, coffees available in the world. We’re on a quest to get South Africans to appreciate and drink African coffee.

What constitutes Fair Trade coffee?
The New York commodities market sets the coffee price. Obviously, as with any product, it is subject to supply and demand. Farmers in Ethiopia may be hand-picking exceptional coffee but they get lumped in the same pool as Vietnamese farmers’ robust, rubbish machine-picked coffee. What the Fair Trade movement does is to set a fair price for coffee. It says that no matter what happens to the market the price you pay for coffee will never be below a certain amount. So you are always guaranteeing the farmer a fair price for his coffee. Having spent time in the NGO world I firmly believe that trade versus aid is a better option.

I sat with one of my Kenyan farmers, Agnes, and she told me that she has two kids: one is going to school and one is not. With my NGO background my inclination was to reach for my pocket saying, “I’ll sort this out and send your second child to school, it’s unacceptable.” But my Fair Trade hat said, “Let me rather pay you what your coffee is worth.”

We call ourselves direct Fair Trade—we believe that, as much as possible, we should get involved in the community rather than just buying Fair Trade coffee. We want to work out how much of the money we are paying is going to the farmers and how much is being sucked in by middle men.

Does the Fair Trade stamp reflect on the conditions of the workers on the farms?
There are aspects of that in terms of the certification process—there’s no child labour or anything. If you adhere to those guidelines you get given your Fair Trade status.

What’s on the menu?
The roastery is here, I guess, for us to showcase our product. People can come to cupping evenings to get to know coffee. We want to do for coffee what’s been done for wine in terms of evaluating it, knowing the different tastes, different aromas and unique flavours.’

The photos in the shop show the faces of our farmers. It’s the adventure element, and there are photos of the processing of the coffee. The bicycle that hangs on the wall, I bought from one of our Tanzanian farmers. I bought him a new bike and he gave me his own bike. The design combines the old with the new.

We have coffee, phenomenal cheesecakes, muffins and chocolate brownies. There is no cooked food. We are trying to keep away from becoming a restaurant—it is essentially an espresso bar. You can have an exceptional cappuccino the way it is meant to be prepared. Our baristas are trained according to the world barista championship standards. We have a hand-made German roaster from a company that has been manufacturing them since 1868.

Do you like coffee?
I’m mad about coffee. I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t. I drink eight to 12 cups a day, probably too much. I try not to finish them but I have to sample all our batches. We optimally roast all our coffees. We look for the perfect point in the roasting process and roast to that level—we don’t have a mild, medium or dark roast.

Bean There is at 44 Stanley Avenue, Milpark. Website:

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse


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