Where to find a guilt-free coffee

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller
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The ethical values of coffee shop chains have been highlighted over the last few years in tandem with their proliferation on the High Street: both Starbucks and Caffè Nero have been called to account over their tax avoidance and research carried out by the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, into the Fairtrade scheme found that the Fairtrade Foundation is unable to ensure that all workers get paid a living wage.

These are all important considerations when it comes to choosing where to drink your cup of joe. Do you choose a large branded chain or one of the small independent shops and if your choice is the latter, how can you ensure your money goes towards supporting a progressive and fairer coffee trading relationship?

A few weeks ago I went to visit Paddy & Scotts, a small independent company with branches in Bury St Edmunds and Hadleigh, to hear more about their adventures in what can be a high risk, albeit exciting, business and to commemorate their 10th anniversary of trading. Founder and CEO Scott Russell told me about the company’s Kenyan Muchomba Farm project: a world-first (and literally) ground-breaking collaboration between a farm and consumer, with more than 4,000 membership plots, home to trees which customers can buy. Part of a ‘coffee revolution’, as Scott describes it, the aim is to redress the balance of trade, bringing coffee to your kitchens from your own coffee tree, grown right there on their farm in collaboration with local people who are paid a fair wage for their skills and benefit from the companies environmental and social investment in the region. “This has never been done before,” Scott tells me.

Going straight to the farm, as Scott says, allows his company to cut out the middle men, the “greedy brokers, useless shipping agents and thieving conglomerates” that dip their hands into the pot giving large coffee conglomerates an excuse to pay the farmers even less for their beans. “The only real way to help the coffee families and the wider community is to go straight to the source and pay more for the raw product,” he adds.

Muchomba Farm is located some 300 kilometres north of Nairobi on the eastern side of Mount Kenya and, together with George Muchomba and his eldest son Isaac, Paddy & Scotts have worked to create an ethical coffee farm with a unique ownership scheme. Four thousand individually numbered trees have been planted on the estate. Coffee lovers can buy into this scheme by becoming a member of the Meru Community Farm Project; you can even visit the farm during harvest and pick the coffee from your very own tree, should you so wish. The wider community benefits, too. The Ruiga Day Secondary School is south of the farm and many of the farm workers’ children are educated there. A 6.6km water feed irrigates not just the coffee trees but provides water for the school, where the creation of a model working farm in its grounds means the children can learn about modern coffee husbandry (and I was particularly interested in the farm’s use of fertiliser pits to grow their trees in). The proceeds from the sale of the farm’s coffee also fund additional places for parents who cannot afford to send their children to school otherwise.

“Sustainability and protection of our environment are important and so, too, are the communities that rely on the coffee plantations for their existence.

“We care passionately about these things and want to behave responsibly,” Scott says. “We set out to empower the farmer and revolutionise how consumers interact with the people supplying their coffee.

“This little coffee company has created a global first.”

These days it is vital that coffee companies compete not only on price and quality but on ethics, too.

It is also vital that we consumers behave in a more ethical manner, seeking out businesses that pay their employees a living wage, have environmentally-friendly business practices (reusable cups, recyclable packaging and recycling coffee grounds as fertiliser are all Paddy & Scotts practices) and show a commitment to investing in the farming communities who grow and tend their coffee plants.

It was once believed that you couldn’t mix business and social activism – but independent companies like Paddy & Scotts show how to do this whilst continuing the push towards awareness change in the coffee industry and beyond.