C offee is globally, the second largest futures traded commodity after oil. It is also the most popular drink in the world, with around two billion cups consumed daily; these two facts alone make it a powerful commodity.
Konrad Brits started in the coffee trade because he found the product exotic and intoxicating; his love for it is so great that it has even prompted his wife to describe him as "married to coffee" with her being his mistress .
“Coffee is grown in a string of countries that straddle the equator and is consumed mainly in northern hemisphere countries; another way to look at that is that coffee is grown in poorer countries and consumed in wealthy countries,” he explains.
Brits started trading coffee aged 23; he built his company, Falcon Coffees, to direct trade the crop, giving both the roasters and end consumers direct sight of the farmers growing the beans. He describes his ethical business as one that takes responsibility for the small farmers who cannot benefit directly from market forces.
To highlight the need for his ethical business model, he says: “Over 50% of the world’s coffee is grown by 30 million small-scale farmers in 45 countries. Twenty-one of the 30 poorest countries on the World Bank’s list of nations ranked according to wealth produce coffee. Twenty-five of the 40 most indebted countries listed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are coffee producing countries. What this means is that I work with rural, often hard-to-reach producers and help them get their product to world markets.”
“These people lack food security, access to education and health care and have zero access to credit. Some of them have a life expectancy of 50 years and can expect to lose one in three of their children by the age of five due to malaria, malnutrition or HIV AIDS. These are the people that make up the matrix at the base of my industry,” he adds.
He does not raise these points to create moral shock, rather to highlight the opportunity created when consumers in the West are prepared to pay £2-£3 for a cappuccino or a latte. “These people are not poor because of coffee, they are poor people farming coffee. Coffee is the opportunity, not the problem.”
“Imagine if we could take this £90 billion retail coffee industry and focus its impact back down the supply chain? It could improve the lives of tens of millions of people, perhaps even boost whole economies.”
Falcon Coffees sources beans from nine central and southern American countries, seven African countries, Indonesia and China in Asia. The production statistics are summarised in Table 1 (from www.falconcoffees.com).
So what does the term ‘ethical’ mean for this company?
“Everyone in our supply chains are required to behave in a manner in- keeping with the principles of trust, transparency and integrity. It is based on the idea of cooperation, rather than competition, is nurturing rather than predatory,” Brits says.
He describes the company as one that “ finances, exports, transports and distributes coffee from point of origin to the final destination”.
Brits adds that this is a complex process requiring many different people and organisations with a variety of skill sets and resources. “By recognising this truth, it’s possible to agree to work together and to each take a profit, after costs, based on the real value of what you bring to the supply chain.”
Boiled down to simplistic language, he says that he buys from the poor and sells to the rich.
Of his experiences, he speaks passionately: “Coffee has taken me to 42 countries around the world and I’ve had some incredible experiences. I’ve danced with a tribal queen of Cameroon in her home town and I’ve spent a terrified night in Angola with my back up against the door so that if anyone came for me I’d wake up.”
“What I’ve learnt along the way is that we all crave the same things; the need for comfort, safety, justice and dignity. But, what we don’t share is equal access to resources, such as education, finance and access to the internet. It is access to these resources that dictates how we are perceived and how we perceive others.”
His analogy is simple, seeing himself as the catalyst for social change to help make people’s lives better. His hope, like those on whose behalf he trades, is that our desire for this exotic, intoxicating beverage continues, because it creates the opportunity to help those in most need.