Bootstrapping independent coffee roasting on the Coffs Coast

Amelia Franklin

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 22nd June, 2013

Sugar and tea was said to be the fuel that drove forward the workers in the mills and factories of England, as it led the world into the industrial revolution.

In our time, coffee has replaced milky tea as the beverage of choice for the white collar workers and entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the information technology and communications revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century.

But now, as then, the world is connected. Tea and sugar were produced somewhere, and that somewhere was often on large plantations were the workers were either indentured slaves or paid very little. Either way conditions were poor and the work was harsh.

Coffee is likewise often grown on large plantations, where the conditions are harsh and the pay is poor. Often, children labour in these plantations, picking the ripe red fruit that contains the green coffee beans alongside their parents and siblings.

The coffee industry globally has revenues in excess of $80 billion per annum. Most of the profits wind up in the hands of multinationals like Nestle and speculators on futures markets, while many coffee growers don’t earn enough to feed their children, let alone send them to school.

Amelia Franklin
Amelia Franklin

There is an ethical alternative, and it’s called fair trade coffee. In our region, Amelia Franklin is the embodiment of fair trade principles.

“When I went into coffee, I just wanted to do fair trade and organics, because I didn’t want to impact on anyone else, that was the main objective”, Amelia says. “I didn’t want to make my life and my son’s life good, at the expense of another family. That’s not OK. I’d rather be poor, and not have that knowledge that where the product is coming from is impacting on someone else’s family in another place to make a profit for myself.”

Amelia is a fiercely independent and values-driven young woman who owns and operates her own coffee roasting and grinding business, based in Bellingen. She has struggled every step of the way and overcome major obstacles, building during the course of 10 years an ethical business with significant sales and a staff of four, including herself. And as I will discuss in the second part of her story, her business directly supports the education of children and the equality of women, amongst many other benefits, in the regions where she sources her coffee: Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Sumatra, Ethiopia and Timor Leste.

Amelia entered the coffee business with no prior experience or mentoring. She even spent a year teaching herself how to roast coffee, after borrowing $20,000 to buy a 5-kilo coffee roaster from Turkey and a grinder; and selling her 1960 FB Holden to purchase a tonne of green beans.

The early days were daunting, even scary. “The whole garden was filled with coffee beans that were burnt or under-roasted”, Amelia recalls. “In that year I thought, What the hell have I done? I’ve screwed up big time, I’ve put myself into a lot of debt, and I don’t even know what I’m doing!”

“There were a lot of tears and fist-pounding on the floor”, she adds with a smile. “But people started to buy my coffee, and I got a couple of big customers in Sydney, and I thought, I must be doing something right.”

Her initial loan came via an equipment finance company, at an extortionate 18% interest rate. Because she had no job, no established business record and no assets, Amelia found herself with little option but to go down that route. It took her four years to clear the initial $20,000 loan, after she had repaid more than double the original amount in interest.

“Going into debt to start a business is not the best way forward”, she reflects ruefully. “It would be good if there were some sort of interest-free loans for start-up businesses”, she adds, pointing out that she has neither the experience or the time to spend long hours writing grant applications, and nor can she afford to employ someone to do that work for her.

Amelia Franklin’s story will be continued. Don’t forget the inaugural Sawtell Veggie Swap this Sunday, 23rd June, from 11.00 am – 2.00 p.m., at Sawtell Public School. Bring your surplus veggies, or just a plate to share!