So I was thinking about coffee the other day. Okay, in the aim of full disclosure for my inaugural post, here’s the thing: I think about coffee every day. The way I see it, of all the vices to adopt as my own, a freshly brewed cup of Joe has got to be the best option. And much to the chagrin of green-tea-converts (many of them former friends), I embrace my vice fully and passionately. Which turns out to be a good thing because, while searching for a cup, I stumbled upon a new coffee shop. It was a most serendipitous stumble because it got me thinking about something else – social entrepreneurship.

Green Beanery is one of the recent caffeinated additions to the oversaturated coffee haven at the intersection of Bloor and Bathurst in downtown Toronto. Situated directly across from the city’s most notorious eyesore, the bargain supercentre known as Honest Ed’s, Green Beanery, a nonprofit, sits in what was once a TD Bank, which helps explain its size. Sitting at 2650 square feet, the space is put to good use. Aside from selling coffee and beans— offering 90 varieties of roasted coffees, more than any other roastery or coffee shop in the world, and a bigger selection of green coffee beans than any other retailer in the world – the Beanery also runs the largest coffee equipment retail store.

Ethical coffee benefits everyone

A coffee-lover’s dream aside (for a moment, anyway), here’s the clincher: it’s a social enterprise. Though nowhere on the site do they make such proclamations, I will do it for them. It’s a pretty easy deduction. Green Beanery’s net revenues go to support Probe International (a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation), dedicated to helping citizen groups around the world protect their lands and their livelihoods. In particular, GB earnings help Probe International advocate for policies benefiting small coffee farmers. And by buying select niche beans and making them available to the public – an otherwise improbable feat – the organization allows farmers to maintain a diverse agriculture, promoting sustainability. As for the equipment, the hope is that by buying quality roasting machines, the demand for quality beans will rise as people learn to roast them in the comfort of their homes.

It’s an impressive enterprise and a stark reminder of the incredible efforts needed to help coffee farmers stay afloat. It reminds me of another social entrepreneurial quest, one initiated by Ron Layton, an Ashoka Fellow who I had the pleasure of speaking with last year. Founder of Light Years IP, his enterprise is revolutionizing the way poor producers in developing countries compete in the markets, helping them attain a more leveled playing field and develop sustainable businesses. The key? Intellectual property (IP). Using formidable IP tools, producers are banding together and leveraging their intangible assets in new and innovative ways. The resulting redistribution of wealth and power is creating immense change, with other positive consequences sure to follow.

Best coffee in the world gets its due

Most recently Layton used the IP model to successfully help Ethiopian coffee producers of three particular fine coffees (the country is known to produce some of the finest beans in the world) take control of distribution in foreign markets, garnering higher and more secure export income in the process. Starbucks, one of the most popular retailers who purchases Ethiopia’s premium coffee, was initially reticent to contract with the newly formed coffee stakeholder group, now charging a premium price for their offerings. In time, however, the coffee giant realized it had little choice and came on board – albeit begrudgingly. Considering the cost differential, I wouldn’t be surprised if Starbucks increases the price of their Ethiopian beans; perhaps they already have. Regardless, the farmers hope to match their recent success with other fine coffee bean producers as well.

Two social enterprises committed to effecting change. Promoting sustainability and empowerment, coffee farmers in the developing world now have a better chance of survival. And I, in turn, get to enjoy a most delectable cup of coffee. Win-win.

Elisa Birnbaum
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Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

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