Common Ground: Lionel Phillips

Wednesday, 25 September, 2013
Interview by Megan Pilditch

Lionel Phillips, new SCASA Chairman, supporting the baristas at last weekend's National Coffee Competitions.

When was the first time you discovered coffee?

I was brought up on a tea estate in Sri Lanka and by nature, we mostly drank tea. However if I remember correctly, I first drank coffee when I was about ten years old in 1960.

When did coffee become more than just something you drank, and rather became a career choice?

I joined as a partner my company I & M Smith which has been in tea and coffee supply in Southern Africa since 1915, it 1976 and this was the start of my association with coffee.

Congratulations on your new role as SCASA Chairman. Are you excited about this new position? Perhaps a little nervous?

Many thanks for your very kind words. I think that not only I but the entire new Board of SCASA are very excited with where we want to take the association, while I would think that in one way or another we would all be a little nervous over how to accomplish this. However, having previously been the Vice Chairman of SCASA, I do have some experience of the hurdles that are ahead of us and am not really scared about my new responsibilities and especially so, as I have so many passionate and accomplished members upon the Board of SCASA with me.

What makes you excited about coffee in South Africa?

I am excited about coffee in South Africa as the coffee culture in this dominant tea consuming country and one that sees soluble of instant coffee dominate coffee consumption, is rapidly growing. This is related not only to the growing number of unique and exciting coffee shops, but also to the relatively strong growth in out of home and at home consumption of fine coffees.

Your career must have taken you all over the world, where was your favourite place you visited?

Most certainly over the past 37 years there has been considerable travel to both coffee producing countries and to coffee consuming countries, as we not only import coffee from producing countries in Central America, South America, Africa and Asia for the South African industries, but also export African coffees to clients in Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia. To identify a favourite country is indeed very difficult as they all have their unique and individual characteristic and cultures, which would make me say they are all in one way or another a favourite.

And one coffee destination you still need to explore?

I would say that there are many coffee destinations that still need to be explored as there are constant changes in the varieties and production methods that are taking place within traditional coffee producing countries and likewise, there are many new producing countries coming into the industry. To list a few that are of special interest would be the resuscitation of the Philippines, Angolan and Congo industries and the rapidly developing coffee farming industry in Southern China.

Your favourite coffee beverage?

My favourite coffee beverage as I only drink plain coffee and tea without milk or sugar, is filter coffees. These through conventional coffee filter machines or after dinner with the use of the Cona Syphon machine, which is a classic form of coffee extraction. These Cona machines that have glass rather than paper or metal filters, having been in use for approximately 60 years.

One thing you have learnt in your coffee career?

That I shall always have a lot more to learn.

And the most interesting person you have met along the way?

This is a rather complicated question as over these very many years, I have met so many very interesting people and to differentiate one that is more prominent than so many other interesting people, is really impossible. But perhaps if I were to select one out of all of the many, it would be my late partner in my business Mr. Neville Lear Smith, who provided me with a tea background with my initial coffee education and so much about the history and the structure of the coffee industry.

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