Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|March 24, 2022|10 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

Bean there

Who would be an entrepreneur?  He heard the dot com crash, smelled the coffee, now COVID-19 keeps him awake at night

Don’t let the smile fool you, its been a bumpy 20- year ride for Jonathan Robinson – some of it deep into the African bush on rattling and ramshackle Russian planes. The entrepreneur side-stepped the dotcom crash a dozen years ago, awoke from the nightmare to smell the coffee, but this year plunged into another crisis as dark and sticky as a cup of espresso.

The crisis was COVID-19 that cost him half of his business and many of the jobs he supported at his Johannesburg operation in South Africa. Months into the pandemic Robinson is fighting to salvage his business and often lies awake worrying about the weak exchange rate of the Rand that came like fleas with the dog.

Coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities with $19 billion of it bought and sold every year. Brazil produces a third of the world’s supply. Africa may be a small player, yet emerging, a player in the market, but is growing at the grassroots 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 to 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. In March, 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 at the time.

Overnight the coffee shops and corporates canceled 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 sometimes I struggle to go back to sleep,” he says.

More than four months on, Robinson spends his waking hours battling to keep his business going. Luckily the landlords have elected to wait for their rent, but still, Robinson had to retrench staff and cut costs to keep his head above water.

“Some coffee shops have reopened, but the tourism industry is not going to open any time soon. All those game lodges and luxury lodges were our best customers,” rues Robinson.

The business has pushed its online sales to try to make up the difference. Through this, the company has exported African coffee to the United Kingdom and Chile; it is also trying to secure a partner – an e-commerce site – in China to help exports there. This online business has helped increase turnover five-fold, he says.

“We are now moving about five tonnes of coffee a month, which is better, but it still means you have lost half of your business,” says Robinson.

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 at 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 and 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.

“The only place I could go is Tanzania to the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, near the border with Kenya, where there are many coffee farmers. But the problem is Tanzania is open for travel, but we (South Africa) are not,” says Robinson.

What worries him most right now is the exchange rate in a business driven by US dollars.

“In recent months 18.50 Rand to the dollar has been a bit of an issue for me, ” he says.

The exchange rate, like a good, strong, cup of coffee, can also keep you up at night.