Masters in the Art of Coffee: An Audience with Jonathan Robinson

Friday, 26 August, 2022

An audience with Jonathan Robinson, founder of Bean There Coffee Company, as they celebrate 16 years of delicious and ethically sourced coffee.

Words by Melanie Winter. Originally published in Issue 36 of The Coffee Magazine

Sitting in a humble office in rural Ethiopia, the leaders of the co-operative are drawing our attention to a set of detailed handwritten ledgers, outlining the income from the last harvest alongside the further premiums paid through Fair Trade. They speak with the weight of many farmers’ and their families in their words. Jono pays attention. He has his notebook and pen in hand, scribbling down important details while never letting his eye contact falter. People feel very comfortable to share their stories, both good and bad, with him, because in conversation with him, you truly feel heard.

“Sometimes when I’m feeling a little bit down and wondering if we’re having any real impact, I just need to get back to origin and sit with the farmers and talk to them and hear their stories and see the part we play in that, yuss, it just turns the lights on! And I think one of my favourite interactions was sitting in Agnes’ home in Nyeri, in rural Kenya. Sitting with her on her couch, in her brick home, with a tin roof and couch and cows outside and a TV on and electricity in her home and just taking stock of where she’d come from years before when I first met her, in a mud house, and there we were scrolling through photos on her iPhone of my previous visits. And I just had to sit back and realise what an impact Fair Trade can make in the lives of people. That was a key highlight of my coffee journey, hearing the stories and the transformation in her life. Her children succeeding in their respective businesses, to see the success of her family is a just a major, major highlight in my life.”

©Dan Carter

Jonathan Robinson, affectionately known as Jono, is the founder of Bean There Coffee Company. They celebrated 16 years of existence in 2021 (at the time this article was published), and through all the inevitable ups and downs in the lifespan of a business, not one of the team would say it is anything less than a sweet celebration.  

“The only reason Bean There exists is to make African coffee farmers’ lives better and to provide meaningful employment for South Africans, so we have stuck to that ‘Why’ in everything we do.” 

One of those coffee farmers is Agnes is from the Nyeri region in the shadow of mighty Mt. Kenya, home to a group of unshakeable coffee farmers from the surrounds of Karatina town. The coffee from the farmers of the Ruthagati Cooperative benefits from the rich volcanic soil of the mountain’s slopes. They are paid directly, ensuring a fair trade that keeps their business sustainable. The most incredible thing about how Bean There supports this community, is that it is just one of the many co-operatives that the team have direct Fair Trade relationships with.

“Bean There has been purchasing coffee from Ruthagati since 2007 in increasing quantities each year and through regular visits we’ve been encouraged by the improvements in the quality and quantity of coffee produced. We remain committed to working with the Ruthagati farmers and all the other origins that we work with to ensure that they receive a fair price despite the fluctuations in the international coffee market and the effects of climate change.”

Way back in 2005, the concept of Fair Trade was little known and the education process was constant.

“Our prices were quite a lot higher than the average back then and it was a real struggle to get people to buy into why and explain where the money was going.”

The coffee landscape in South Africa has evolved dramatically since that time, with a whole movement towards ethical business practices. Safe to say that Bean There were certainly ahead of that curve! 

While travelling in 2001, Jono met a Colombian man living in Canada by the name of Hugo Ciro who had started a company called Level Ground Trading, run on the fair trade business model. 

“I loved discovering the fact that you could have a business in something you loved and make a difference in the lives of others at the same time; this was something I had always dreamt of.” 

They are still friends to this day and meet up wherever they can across the globe for coffee adventures. When I had the opportunity to meet Hugo and his team, it was easy to see why Jono found them so inspiring. You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep and those humans of Level Ground were some of the most welcoming and delightful I’ve met in the coffee industry.

Back in South Africa, Jono was met with a lot of skepticism. A business in African coffee will never work! The South African palate won’t like the fruity African coffees! What does Fair Trade even mean?

Jono was in the fortunate position of being in IT when IT first became a thing, part of the fantastically successful Dimension Data team, and so he had some start up capital, and the support of his family, with which to launch Bean There, even in the face of detractors. 

“I feel very fortunate to have learnt at this early career point in my life, that I would need to seek significance to find fulfilment and that money alone wouldn’t cut it.”

©Dan Carter

This quest to make a significant impact is still going strong and he still gets as excited about coffee as he did sitting with his grandmother Olga when he was thirteen years old. Every year they celebrate the impact Olga had on their journey with a special release coffee under the moniker ‘Olga’s Reserve.’ Within six months he had convinced his sister, Sarah, also imbued with Olga’s passion for coffee and people, to join the cause. 

“Sarah was a key success factor in this business. We just had very complimentary skills, I don’t think we had one fight! It was a big moment when she decided to leave the business, but we had a lot of time to plan and I am so happy for her, that she has gone on to pursue something that is so important to her.”

Sarah works with Medair, an international NGO that employ experts in health and nutrition; shelter and infrastructure; water, sanitation, and hygiene and help the most vulnerable in times of crisis in countries like South Sudan and Yemen.

Are you sensing a pattern here? The Robinson family is certainly dedicated to serving their fellow humans.

©Dan Carter

The deep connections with farmers, within the Bean There team and the clear joy that is experienced on all fronts is only possible through personal interaction and also, travel. While you can find a lot of coffees that are bought through the Fair Trade system, Bean There goes a step further and has direct relationships with the humans behind the coffee. Pre-COVID, Jono travelled on a rotation through the countries they buy coffee from touching base with the communities regularly. It holds true that no matter where you’re travelling to, outside of your comfort zone, you’re likely to learn something new about yourself or about the other humans you encounter, likely both. 

The values that the business subscribes to are not just marketing tools, they are lived by the team members. One of the pretty unusual and commendable practices of this company is making an effort to get as many of the team to visit origin as possible for the staff to understand first hand why we’re in business.

“It really hit home for me when we were on a trip to Rwanda and Thabo, one of our baristas, said to me, ‘Jono, when you talked about Fair Trade, part of me thought that it was just talk, but being here and seeing what is happening here, it makes sense.’”

When it comes to why there seems to be little staff turnover, there are no secrets.

“We pay people fairly and well. I look for people who share our why. And we have a lot of fun, there’s always lots of laughter and joy. In fact one of my career highlights was being awarded the Coffee Magazine Award for Team of the Year two years in a row. We’re so reliant on each other in this world and to be recognised for that togetherness, was a huge moment for us.”

And what a team it is. They’ve also managed to illustrate this joy in their packaging and their roastery. The comforting thing about walking into Bean There HQ at 44 Stanley is that you’re met with a sense of peace. I think that stems from the fact that this space knows what it’s about. The business was already three years old when they took a chance on this then newly revamped precinct on the edge of downtown Johannesburg and they knew the face they wanted to present to the world. Colour, a central significant bicycle, hanging lampshades and a celebration of the farmers. And while they’ve recently had a revamp themselves, the core attributes remain in a dazzling new way, doing justice to the delicious coffees on offer.

“Sometimes at night when I’m walking to the door to lock up and I look back on the Roastery, I am just in awe and wonder that this space is the home of Bean There. It is a beautiful location and it was a huge victory to open our doors here.”

©Brandon Hinton

Adventure is around every corner when in the presence of Jono and I am lucky enough to have many memories with him and the other wonderful members of this team while traveling. But perhaps because of the times we’re living in, where reckless abandon on a grand scale has been quashed for a time, the ones that pop into my head are to do with dancing. Dominating the dance floor with a South African crew in Rimini, Italy, the first time I got to see Jono’s unabashed moves. Dancing in the early hours of the morning at the Durban beachfront, twirls galore and unbounding energy. In the midst of the very important work that he leads, he always finds a way to find the fun in whichever situation presents itself.

In the first year of this magazine we went to a dinner at Jono’s home and almost 10 years later we finally got it together to make it happen a second time. At dinner with Ethan, Jess, Nicky and Jono, I smile to myself, while I listen to the conversation. Inspiring quotes from great minds seem to drop effortlessly into the flow; they’re always challenging each other to do better where they are. I am struck by the principled and passionate standpoints of Jono’s daughter, Jess.  Already a fierce activist and very aware of her privilege and the impact she can have on the world. I can’t help but be proud of my friend Jono and his wonderful wife Nicole, for encouraging critical thought and debate and above all, kindness.

I will leave you with one of the quotes that came up in the meandering conversation, because I believe that Bean There Coffee Company has attained this kind of mastery in the world of coffee.

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both. ”

James A. Michener

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