It’s a big part of my job to stay familiar with the coffee we serve, the farmers that produce it, and the community programs we sponsor in those farming communities. Every day I speak to customers about the components of our blend and the fact that all of our farms are regularly visited by Noah and an assortment of other Think employees. I’m the one who sends out company-wide newsletters about changes to our blend and single source menu, and I put together statements and posters about the work we do at origin. But even with that regular interaction with Think’s relationship to green coffee, it can be tough to make the emotional connection between the place our coffee comes from and what we serve.
When we arrived in Hagere Mariam, a 14-hour car trip south from Addis Ababa in the back of a seat-beltless 12-seat Toyota with representatives from Think, Days for Girls, and Nardos Coffee, I was hit with a real understanding of what Think’s relationship with communities at origin is really like. It was this wild, anxious, buzzing acknowledgement that I was here to see a place and people and the origin of a product that I mention casually every day at work. I wasn’t sure how it would go or what exactly I’d learn, but at the bare minimum I had taken a two day trip to spend a week and a half attempting to better understand something that I interact with all of the time. Coming here with the encouragement and accompaniment of my employer was a huge deal to me all on its own.
Kellensoo, another twenty minutes driving from Hagere Mariam, is the place where my friend Ben first ended up having a meeting with village elders three and a half years ago to talk about purchasing coffee and identifying community needs that Think might be able to address in our contract. It’s the place where my friend Emily spent a month making friends and assisting in the construction of the Eleshu elementary school library. It’s also the place that my favorite coffee comes from. I spent my time there getting to know the students and teachers who are actually benefiting from our community projects. I learned how to sew the Days for Girls kits along with the the sewing group, played a lot of soccer with the high school students, led a computer basics workshop with a group of elementary school teachers and their librarian, and started up a pen pal correspondence with an enthusiastic teacher who is working on his English skills. Ultimately, I made friends, saw coffee production firsthand for the first time, developed a better understanding of where we are with our project, and helped articulate the direction that we would like it to go moving forward. That was enough to change the way that I think about what we serve in New York, and I don’t think that I’ll ever get into a conversation about coffee at work again without directly linking it to this experience in my mind.
The way that Think visits the communities that we have relationships with is unique. We’re there to do good, but we’re not an NGO. Our projects are based on long running business relationships and the work we do is directly related to the amount of coffee that we purchase. We are there to purchase coffee, but we’re not around just to cup a group of coffees, pick the ones we want to buy, and get out. It’s a sustained relationship based on goodwill and the balance of our mutual interests.
We’ll give more updates in the coming weeks about the work that Think, Days for Girls and Nardos did during that trip, but to start, I’m happy to take this moment to acknowledge the special nature of our relationship with this community and how honored I am to be a personal part of it.