Lancaster organizations invest in Central Africa coffee producers

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger//September 20, 2019

Lancaster organizations invest in Central Africa coffee producers

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger//September 20, 2019

Van Gogh once said that “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together,” and that’s certainly the case when it comes to a triumvirate of Lancaster-based organizations that are making a difference in an area of the world that is among the lowest ranked in the World Bank “ease of doing business” ratings.

HOPE International, a Lancaster-based microenterprise development nonprofit began investing in entrepreneurs in the landlocked country of Burundi through its microfinance institution, Turame Community Finance in 2012.

Earlier this year, the organization began partnering with the Long Miles Coffee Project, following an introduction by Passenger Coffee, to provide salary loans to their staff.

Lancaster-based Commons Company, which sells Passenger Coffee, sought “B Corp” Certification, which included a focus on developing a more sustainable, beneficial, supply chain. In 2018, they received their certification through the help of ASSETS, another Lancaster-based nonprofit. “This unique collection of Lancaster-based firms and non-profits are collectively impacting a more challenged population,” said Kevin Tordoff, Vice President of Marketing, HOPE International.

The Long Miles Coffee Project

Ben and Kristy Carlson are just one example of how philanthropy can be contagious.

The couple, who relocated from America to Burundi, had a dream that they could facilitate direct and meaningful relationships with coffee roasters and coffee growers by producing great coffee and telling the stories of the farmers who grow it.

After time spent sourcing coffee in Burundi, they realized they could better control the coffee quality and price by building a washing station. Washing stations are where farmers drop off their beans, which are then floated in a tank. Underdeveloped coffee cherries float to the top so they can be easily skimmed off.

The Carlsons reported that in their first season, with the help of friends and blog readers, they sold the coffee before it hit the drying tables, which enabled them to pay farmers months before any other washing station in the area, and they quickly became established as a vital part of the community.

HOPE International’s Mission to Lend a Hand Up

HOPE International first became involved in microfinancing after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  At that time, founder Jeff Rutt, and the Pennsylvania church he attended partnered with a church in Ukraine.

After handouts failed to help the community, they began exploring other ways of helping and decided on providing access to small loans to empower Ukrainians. The effort was successful and today HOPE operates in 16 underserved countries, assisting hundreds of thousands of people through more than 2.7 million loans, totaling more than $800 million.

According to Tordoff, nearly three billion people in developing countries have no access to formal financial services. In addition to providing advances for salaries for the Long Miles Coffee Project washing station, HOPE International also fills the financial services gap through microfinancing, which they define as “providing financial assistance such as small loans to poor people so they can increase their income and decrease their vulnerability to unforeseen circumstances.”

This is done through offering financial services via microfinance institutions serving groups of entrepreneurs in economically impoverished countries like Burundi.  In addition to the contributions of clients themselves (through interest), HOPE International’s work is funded through charitable individuals and organizations. HOPE reports that 98 percent of the loans have been repaid in the past five years.

ASSETS and the Commons Company

Jonathan Coleman, Co-CEO of ASSETS, said that his nonprofit organization has a consulting arm that engages with companies to help them use their business as a force for good.

ASSETS staff worked closely with Crystal Weaver and Kyle Sollenberger, owners of Passenger Coffee, to improve and quantify their social and environmental performance, which enabled them to achieve “B Corp” certification. “In order to be certified, companies must meet rigorous standards across the spectrum of business operations, including their supply chains,” said Coleman, adding that there are only a few thousand businesses around the world are “B Corp Certified,” with 20 in Lancaster. It is a very high bar, so we are incredibly proud of companies like Passenger, who have reached that level,” he said.

Becoming a “Certified B” Corporation

Weaver and Sollenberger teamed up to become a “Certified B” Corporation to be held accountable. “It was the process of validating for ourselves the things we believe we were already doing and standing for.  Certifications are tricky in coffee. There are a lot of them that can be put on the bag to make the consumer feel good to buy it, but there’s not that much of a legitimate impact behind that. We knew that this would force us to come up with quantifiable systems. It’s all words unless we are quantifying what we do,” said David Stallings, Director of Coffee at Passenger.

Stallings adds that the certification requires the company to treat people fairly, pay a livable wage and pay a sustainable wage to producers. The certification has also challenged Weaver and Sollenberger to go even further by addressing additional factors when traveling to a country of origin. For instance, asking how producers are dealing with gender equity and other concerns.

Another upside to becoming a “Certified B” Corporation, according to Weaver is that employees are attracted to them because of their certification. “There’s a lot of energy in the 17-27-year old demographic. Many are attracted to companies that are thoughtful and that think about the earth and the environmental impact piece,” said Weaver.

Working together to make a difference

“The people at Passenger Coffee, who source their beans from around the world, connected with HOPE International and Burundi and now Lancaster has this wonderful, high quality, tasty product that is roasted and sold here and elsewhere,” said Coleman.  “And everyone who orders the Passenger blend from Burundi is also playing a small role by investing in the country and its people,” added Tordoff.

Coleman said that he’s proud that his organization can help others both in his area and around the world. “I think it’s very cool that these global business connections, which are empowering and infusing resources into a community in rural Africa, began right here in Central Pennsylvania.”