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Kua is a social enterprise that’s working to change the coffee-purchasing game – one organisation at a time.
SAP, UNICEF, Canva, Aesop and John Holland all have something in common besides their global presence: the businesses care about their morning brew. Teaming with Kua – a social enterprise that’s working to better the coffee sector – the companies are provided with coffee that’s ethical, sustainable and delivers a greater good.
Kua was born in mid-2017 when UNSW Engineering students Brody Smith and Darcy Small spent a month working in Uganda as part of a university field school. There they met local agricultural student Daniel Okinong, who had lived near Uganda’s coffee-growing region on the slopes of Mount Elgon in the Bugisu region.
“We’re working towards happy days for our stakeholders, children and those experiencing the mounting injustices of climate change.” – Brianna Kerr
After swapping coffee stories, the three realised the economic disconnect that existed from crop to cup. While many westerners would pay A$4 per cup, Mount Elgon’s coffee-growing communities were lucky to earn that amount for a kilogram of coffee. Recognising that each kilogram of coffee makes 50 lattes, the young students saw an opportunity.
Brody, Darcy and Daniel agreed on a deal: if Uganda’s coffee was of high enough quality, they would work to launch a social enterprise that would redirect profits back to Mount Elgon. They took the beans to Australia and had them tested for specialty grading. The beans passed.
“Since 2018, Kua has been a charity registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission,” Darcy explains. “As students, the founding team members did not have access to capital and the business was launched on just A$30K of philanthropic funding.”
To save on costs, the members signed a one-year lease on a Sydney share house, with a second living room that would be used for office space and a garage large enough to store five tonnes of coffee as well as hundreds of re-usable packaging canisters.
“Kua was built on volunteer hours as the team worked and lived together under the same roof,” Darcy says. “In 2020, Kua had enough clients to start payroll, and the team split to new houses.”
Instead of a traditional hierarchy, Kua has developed a system that enables everyone to set their own salaries, execute big decisions without formal sign-off and co-create short- and mid-term strategies. Its operation is based on the expression ‘Happy days’. “A simple phrase reminding us of the world and culture we’d like to be a part of,” adds Brianna Kerr, Kua’s Head of Impact.
“We’re working towards happy days for our stakeholders, children and those experiencing the mounting injustices of climate change.”
This year, Kua purchased coffee from 75 farmers and the profits were reinvested back to the farmers to mobilise families on the journey to climate resilience. The company has made 272.9K square metres of Mount Elgon land resilient to climate change and saved more than 2,989kg of used coffee grounds from landfill.
“Equipped with the answers to these two questions, everyday coffee drinkers have the power to change the world for the better, through their consumption behaviour.” – Darcy Small
“Climate resilience is a process through which communities and their local ecosystem adopt new strategies to survive (and ideally, thrive) in the face of climate change,” Brianna tells The CEO Magazine. “Resilience initiatives are most effective when deployed through local organisations and when building on traditional knowledge systems.”
Kua works with ECOTRUST – a Ugandan environmental conservation trust – who train ‘community mobilisers’ (local leaders) to work with growers on long-term land-use plans.
The program introduces farmers to principles of sustainable agroforestry, empowering them to redesign their coffee plots to help stabilise and regenerate Mount Elgon’s slopes.
Additionally, this year’s profits will help 75 farming families to establish and maintain water and soil conservation practices across 50 hectares of over-cultivated land.
“To stabilise slopes through heavy rains, every hectare accommodates four water basins, connected through 400m of grassed waterways,” Brianna explains. While, for regeneration, every hectare is intercropped with 80 native trees, sequestering 58 tonnes of carbon emissions. “These environmental services generate an additional and diversified A$150 of income for every participant,” she notes.
Kua works closely with two local producer organisations – Zukuka Bora and Kyagalanyi. And every year, the team spends a month in the field to observe buying processes and learn from different stakeholders: farmers, buyers, exporters and local development experts.
“All partners are either UTZ, and Rainforest Alliance certified, or enable Kua to purchase micro-lots, where cash can be traced back to the individual farmer,” Darcy says.
Mount Elgon – home to Arabica coffee – has one of the highest concentrations of smallholder farmers in the world and is very susceptible to climate change.
“For Zukuka Bora farmers in remote areas, such as Bukhanakwa Ridge where Kua predominantly buys from, there is limited access to markets,” Darcy says. “Kua enables these growers to bypass commodity prices and middlemen. In committing to multi-year purchases, Kua also enables farmers to invest in their farms and futures.”
For a reasonably new startup, the impact of COVID-19 was devastating. Darcy explains that the pandemic caused about 90% of Kua’s orders to evaporate. “For the majority of 2020, the operational side of Kua’s business has been in hibernation,” he says.
However, long-term and high-volume partnerships like SAP’s 5 & 5 by ’25 – a corporate initiative designed to encourage organisations to direct more of their spend toward certified social-enterprise and diverse-business suppliers – offer Kua the confidence to continue scaling its impact.
“Thanks to SAP’s commitment, Kua has been able to reinitiate two MOUs with impact partners in Uganda that were dependent on forecasted volumes in 2021,” Darcy shares.
For the business to continue creating a positive impact on the industry, it aims to also challenge customers with two questions: Where does your coffee come from and where does your coffee end up?
“Equipped with the answers to these two questions, everyday coffee drinkers have the power to change the world for the better, through their consumption behaviour,” Darcy says. “We would like to see Kua replicated in coffee-drinking and coffee-growing hotspots around the world.”
Read next: The sustainable future of alcohol producers.
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With ties to New Zealand and Russia, Anastasia moved to Australia in 2013 to study and work in journalism. She has also worked as a freelance journalist in Amsterdam.
© The CEO Magazine 2021