Who would be an entrepreneur? He heard the dot com crash, smelled the coffee, now COVID-19 keeps him awake at night
By Chris Bishop
Entrepreneur Jonathan Robinson saw his dotcom dream disappear overnight, he awoke from the nightmare to smell the coffee only to suffer COVID-19 keeping him awake at night. It has been a bumpy 20-year ride for Robinson – some of it in discomfort flying deep into the African bush on ramshackle Russian planes.
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Coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities with $19 billion worth bought and sold every year. Brazil produces a third of world supply. Africa may be a small player, yet emerging, player in the market, but is growing at the grass roots with the help of the Fair Trade movement that seeks to cut out the big traders and give small farmers a bigger slice of the profits.
Forty-five-year-old Robinson, the son of a pastor, picked up the Fair Trade idea in a chance meeting, at a coffee shop, in Victoria on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada. He brought it home to South Africa to set up Bean There – a company that buys Fair Trade coffee everywhere from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda to Burundi. He built up a robust roasting business employing 30 people in Johannesburg.
It was all going so well. Near the end of February, he invested in the future with a relaunch of his company’s image – just weeks later the COVID-19 shutdown hit. Instead of increasing market share, like most businesses in South Africa, he was thrust into cutting back salaries and negotiating with the landlord.
“The temptation is to put your head in the sand and hope it will go away, but it won’t,” says Robinson.
Overnight the coffee shops and corporates cancelled their contracts with Bean There. Ten tonnes- a-month supply of coffee, to the chattering classes, dwindled to around one tonne.
“I keep waking up at night and thinking this is not happening, this must be a dream. It is not and sometime I struggle to go back to sleep,” he says.
What a world away from another, more pleasant, dream that Robinson lived through in the last days of the 20th century – the dot com boom. He studied a B com in marketing at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg and cut his teeth in IT at IBM, before taking a job at homegrown company Didata. He was selling Cisco Systems – a company that competed with Microsoft in those heady days.
“It was the glory days we were on great money, with good commission, really crazy money,” recalls Robinson.
In 2001, came the crash. Robinson saw the writing on the wall when his shares in the company plunged from R70-a-share to a mere R7 faster than you can say dot com. He quit his job and went backpacking with his wife. They bought a car and drove 27,000 miles, in three months, across the United States and Canada. He worked briefly in Canada, the country where he was born during his father’s time preaching there, in a coffee shop on Vancouver Island on the country’s sunny Pacific coast. An encounter in a coffee shop in Victoria gave him the Fair Trade idea to take home to South Africa.
Buying from supporting 10,000 small farmers across Africa through Fair Trade is easier said than done. It requires hard-work, nerve and thousands of miles of gruelling travel with a large pocketful of US dollars.
Take the 2,000 small coffee growers of the Virunga Mountains, in the shadow of the bubbling lava of the volcano that dominates the horizon of the eastern city of Goma on the border with Rwanda. Their coffee is grown in rich volcanic soil 1800 feet above sea level – a great altitude for growers that produce an equally rich aroma and flavour.
Getting Virunga Mountain coffee to the lips of the coffee drinkers of Johannesburg is a lot easier said than done. The last leg of Robinson’s journey from Johannesburg to the mountains was made in a rattling, unlicensed, Russian plane.
“All the luggage was in the aisle so you had to climb over the seats to get to your seat. There were more people on board than there were seats so there were a number of people standing at the back of the plane when we took off. The seat belt was broken so you had to tie it in a knot,” recalls Robinson.
On the ground, a deal was struck for a container of coffee that began a long journey to Johannesburg. A truck spent a couple of months driving it halfway across the continent to the port at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It took a few more weeks to ship it south from Dar es Salaam to Durban and a few days to clear the port and truck it west to Johannesburg.
Trips to the Virunga Mountains are a distant memory for Robinson in the days of COVID-19. He says he has enough coffee in stock for the rest of the year while he battens down the hatches. What worries him most right now is the exchange rate in a business driven by US dollars.
“18.50 rand to the dollar is a bit of an issue for me right now,” he says.