The Berlin-based start-up Coffee Circle allows people to help the rural farming collective simply by drinking a tasty cup of joe each day. For every kilo of coffee sold, development projects improving the community receive €1.
“It's high-quality coffee, but we noticed the farmers there weren't getting much out of it, so we started thinking about how it could be exported while giving back,” Coffee Circle co-founder Martin Elwert told The Local.
In 2009, he travelled to Ethiopia with his friend Moritz Waldstein-Wartenberg to help open a school for orphan girls in Addis Abeba. There the two 29-year-olds, who worked together at consulting firm Roland Berger, developed an appreciation for the country's coffee drinking culture.
“It's very present there, they drink it three times a day,” Elwert said.
But they also saw people living in poverty while big coffee companies profited from their labours, a situation that sparked the Coffee Circle idea.
Back in Germany, the pair teamed up with a third colleague, 30-year-old Robert Rudnick, before quitting their jobs and moving from Munich to Berlin to found their start-up in July 2009.
“I don't want to bash consulting, but this feels like it has more meaning,” said Waldstein-Wartenberg. “We're going to provide clean drinking water for 2,000 people just by selling the first tonne of coffee.”
Their plan is to harness both the social awareness stoked by fair trade products and a growing interest in gourmet coffee to improve conditions for the people who actually harvest the beans.
“With fair trade people know they are helping but they don't see exactly where their money goes, but we closed the circle, which is where our name comes from,” Waldstein-Wartenberg explained.
The company's online shop features videos and descriptions of each development project, along with scales that register monetary progress towards their realisation. Customers can support the construction of a spring to provide clean water and the purchase of new learning materials and medical supplies for the Ilketunjo cooperative in southern Ethiopia.
Before getting their endeavour started, Waldstein-Wartenberg and Elwert met with the community's farmers to discuss how best to focus their partnership.
“They have a very clear understanding of what they need,” Elwert said. “It's not mobile phones and televisions, it's ‘we're getting sick because we don't have clean water and we need better schools.' With this help kids will have time to study because they won't have to walk 10 kilometres to get clean water.”
While the satisfaction that comes with social responsibility is certainly a selling point, the coffee – handpicked, forest-grown, organic Arabica – is also excellent.
Over a cup of their mild and aromatic Yirgacheffe blend, named after the region where it's produced, Elwert and Waldstein-Wartenberg described how they'd become coffee aficionados while starting their new business.
Asked if he takes cream or sugar, Elwert's face contorts like a waiter asked to serve filet mignon with ketchup.
“I used to, but not since I started drinking the Ethiopian coffee,” he said.
While many coffee drinkers in the United States are already accustomed to the single-source concept, along with spending a bit more for a quality brew, it may be a challenge convincing frugal Germans to spend €13 on 500 grammes of coffee beans.
Coffee prices have been rock-bottom in Germany for years thanks to the price wars between grocery discounters, but they are slowly rising, which the trio of self-described "Coffeepreneurs" hopes will work in their favour.
“Germans love to spend €1,000 on a coffee machine and then spend just €3 on coffee from discounters like Lidl – we're hoping to relay that if they spend a bit more it's better for everyone in the end,” said Waldstein-Wartenberg.
Coffee Circle's online shop ships their two coffee blends and an espresso blend, along with french presses and other accessories to Germany and Austria.