It is one of the first things we know about coffee – that Fairtrade is better than regular brands– but what does that mean exactly and do the farmers really benefit? Coffee farming in Africa has captured the imagination of the Western World more easily than say banana, barley or peanut farming but are we just salving our conscience by choosing the Fairtrade label or are we actually doing good?
One Irishman (and his fellow Irish partner) are enabling real support for coffee farmers and using blockchain to prove the supply chain. This is the story of how a trek in Uganda opened up a new vista and project.
Killian Stokes is currently an adjunct lecturer in International Relations in UCD and CEO of Moyee Coffee, where he blends (pun intended) his love of NGO work and tech.
Killian also looks about 16 so when I interview him I start at the wrong end of the conversation before discovering he is actually 20 years older than my original assumption. I think he accepts it as a compliment, either way he is gracious enough to let my faux pas pass.
Killian studied BESS in Trinity College. He was interested in economics and also had heard good things about the course (for good things read a jolly social life). He was not disappointed on both counts but wonders wistfully if he should have studied History and English instead. I point out glibly that was my joint honours course in Trinity and I loved every minute of it, but that is totally not the point of this story.
Killian was leaning towards entrepreneurship but also looking at making a difference in the world, foreshadowing many of the moral imperatives of the blockchain community. He also leaned into technology which he saw as providing a democratising impact, another imperative for the blockchain community.
“Consider the internet and the knowledge available online. Previously people might have needed access to well stocked libraries which implies they are living in the developed world. However, provide the internet and you can open doors to learning and education not present before.”
Killian moved to the UK where he worked for a number of software companies. It was an exciting time in parts: he got to travel extensively and the innovation emerging in the dot.com world was fast and furious.
However, it also meant that software founders went too far in the other direction, where floating on Nasdaq or raising funds from VCs became the centre of the universe. Killian spent ten mostly happy years in this sector but as the dot.com buzz grew so too did his dissatisfaction.
He was working for a US software tech giant that hit the hard edge of the dot.com crash and it began laying off staff, some 40% of its staff. Killian was one of the first with his hand up to be laid off. “I no longer had any joy.”
So in 2002 he had a lump sum to cushion his next career jump. He wanted to go back to basics, to make a difference and help people, and so he joined an Irish NGO called Aid Projects for Africa. At the same time, he was exploring his creative side. He felt he wanted to make documentaries. He mentions John Pilger as a hero.
He studied a Masters in DCU in International Relations and then joined Concern as a Fund Raiser – he decided that rather than making documentaries he would actively fund projects – that felt more immediate.
Now his two worlds – tech and philanthropy – were joining up. He founded a startup in Dublin called Mygoodpoints where digital value in air miles and similar rewards systems could be used for rewarding projects in developing worlds, or for giving the user a free extra coffee, whatever the user wanted, but there was a choice.
The timing was off for the project- too soon in using digital currencies and also right in the middle of global financial meltdown in 2008. The project ran out of funds and Killian decided to relocate to the States, the home of philanthropy. He bounced between New York, Washington and Seattle, networking, learning more about projects and understanding how fundraising worked.
At the end of 30 months he had learnt two fundamental truths about the industry and himself. The first was that he was a very strong advocate of helping others by helping themselves – rather that approaching aid in the often paralysing fashion when administered as welfare. The second was that he very much wanted to help supervise how that money was spent.
These sentiments are echoed and validated by personal experience. He attended a conference in Dublin where more than 200 African students were present. “They were not interested in aid, they wanted to learn about entrepreneurship, business and like-minded skills. They wanted to become ‘faster’ entrepreneurs.”
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This conference was instrumental in developing Killian’s thinking. “I am not disregarding poverty. I am not oblivious to the obvious wealth inherent in African nations which does not trickle down to ordinary citizens. But I am very focussed on using strategic thinking and enterprise to solve these seemingly intransigent problems.”
He started to explore the potential to move beyond the aid sector towards ethical trade and met with fellow Irish man, Shane Reilly. Both as it turned out had a keen interest in coffee and both had trekked through coffee growing regions (Killian in Africa, Shane in South America) and both had been shocked at the levels of poverty experienced the farmers, despite growing one of the developed world’s most popular goods.
It turns out 100 million people on our planet rely on coffee for a living. That’s coffee farmers and their families but despite 25 years of fair trade and a global boom in coffee 90% of these coffee farmers still live on less than €2 a day. Meanwhile consumers here are often stuck drinking bad coffee that they know is produced unfairly which they are powerless to do anything about.
“Sometimes it is hard to understand the sheer levels of poverty faced by other people. I remember we went to this market in Northern Ethiopia. The town was almost medieval in its outlook. I spoke with one woman who had walked two days in her bare feet to buy goods. She showed me what she had bought – one chicken, one lemon and literally a fist full of coffee beans. All that way for such a small amount of goods.
“And later when it rained, great big sheets of rain, we were stuck by how the men had umbrellas but the women covered their heads with cloth scarves and bits of plastic. We had bought umbrellas but gave them to two women when we left.”
Both Killian and Shane were struck by the poverty and also the sheer inequality faced by farmers. While coffee growing happens in a belt across Africa, coffee blending and roasting happens in developed countries and this is where the value is added.
They returned to Ireland and ran an Indiegogo crowdfunding project to create an Irish NGO that would sell coffee ‘proudly made in Africa.’ They found 100 customers in Ireland who agreed to accept a box of beans – BeanBox – every month and pay a premium for the coffee, a premium which was paid to the farmers.
With the money raised, the pair travelled to Africa, and in particular Ethiopia, home of the famous luxury Arabica coffee. They met an eccentric Dutch social innovator, Guido Van Staveren, who was approaching coffee production in a radical new way.
In collaboration with Ethiopian entrepreneurs, roasters and farmers, Guido had set up Moyee, a speciality coffee company that not only sources beans in Ethiopia, but roasts them there as well. A process that locks in the special flavours and character of Moyee coffee at origin, and ensures that more jobs and more money stays within Ethiopia creating a much fairer supply chain.
This idea is called FairChain. Shane and Killian had not only found their radically good cup of coffee, they’d also found their social revolution as well.
“Everything starting falling into place. We were very happy to work with Guido and launch this product into the English speaking world, beginning with Ireland and moving into the UK. We had already identified a number of companies that were already providing decent coffee to their staff: we just needed to request they moved to ethical coffee supplies. So far, so good.”
And now the Moyee Coffee business is moving onto blockchain. Killian is fairly nonplussed over blockchain. “It’s digital but I’m not concerned so much about the blockchain hype, just so long as it works.”
This harks back to his decade in the UK working in the software sector. Killian is more concerned about the outcome of technology than what or who owns it.
“However, I can see that blockchain not only fulfils the provenance requirement, it can also facilitate the incorporation of reward systems, whereby users can decide to take rewards or tip the farmer. It’s all good for everyone.
“In the future we can see lots of interesting applications too. Perhaps when you approach a coffee dock your app on your phone will tell the dock how you like your coffee, and ask if you’d like to tip the farmer or plant a tree.
“And then in the field, we can use this technology to educate farmers on sustainability and when such principles are employed, reward their behaviour not only in higher yields but in actual monetary rewards. The first mile – from the farmer – to the last mile – to the customer are both equally available for upgrading and benefitting people on the chain.”
Mine’s an Americano to go – what’s yours?