November 24, 2023
Community
People

Change Makers – Commonfolk Coffee – Sam Keck

News & Insights
Located in Mornington Peninsula, Commonfolk offers its customers ethically sourced coffee, a commitment to sustainability, and a hub for community connection.

Join us as we chat with Commonfolk Co-founder and Managing Director Sam Keck to uncover the inspiration behind this renowned cafe. 

Sam, how did the concept of Commonfolk come about, and what role do you see it playing in the broader Mornington community? 

Commonfolk‘s story is anchored in a shared passion for great coffee and a desire to make a real impact in the coffee industry. Our founders are an eclectic mix, including a marine biologist, pro surfer, aeronautical engineer, and cattle rancher — but we all shared a love for exceptional coffee and saw an opportunity to do something meaningful for the people involved in the coffee industry.

When we set out to import and roast our own coffee, we knew we needed a unique space. Traditional commercial locations didn’t quite fit our vision. But, when we stumbled upon our Progress St HQ in the Mornington industrial estate, we instantly knew we’d found home. We signed the lease, and in just a matter of months, Commonfolk was born. 

Our aspiration was more than just running a cafe and wholesale roastery. That’s why, from day one, we launched The Cup That Counts initiative, aimed at supporting a fair and equitable coffee industry. We commit to donating 20 cents from every cup of coffee we serve and every kilogram of coffee we roast to our charity. 

With The Cup That Counts at its core, could you share some insights into how Commonfolk aims to redefine the coffee industry’s value chain? 

In the global coffee industry, where most of the world’s coffee originates in developing nations and is then exported to western consumers, a glaring issue has persisted. This problem revolves around the exploitation and inequality faced by coffee farmers, who receive a meagre share of the profits while middlemen reap the lion’s share. Efforts such as fair-trade programs have aimed to level the playing field, but they’ve had varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, the commodity coffee industry still leans heavily in favour of powerful entities, leaving the farmworkers behind. 

This backdrop gave rise to a movement within the specialty coffee sector known as direct trade. At Commonfolk, we’ve built our foundation upon this concept, but we’ve taken a distinct approach that we refer to as “partnership coffee.” Our focus is on nurturing enduring and meaningful relationships with coffee producers rather than merely seeking the cheapest deals. 

We believe in prioritising long-term partnerships because we’ve observed that it leads to an increase in the quality of the coffee we source. This approach benefits us, our partners, and, of course, our beloved coffee enthusiasts. We’re proud to announce that by the end of 2023, we project that over 95% of the coffee we roast will be sourced using our partnership model. This emphasis on ethical trade is what makes us stand out in the coffee industry, and it’s our way of making a positive impact in a complex and often exploitative landscape. 

How did Commonfolk‘s collaboration with Zukuka Bora in Uganda begin, and how do you ensure that the partnership remains mutually beneficial? 

Our collaboration with Zukuka Bora in Uganda started with a shared purpose: to empower coffee farming communities and foster sustainability in the Ugandan coffee industry. We had a connection with a development organisation in Uganda who was certain that coffee could be a tool for positive social impact, so they developed the concept of Zukuka Bora — a company that would provide an international market for the regions farmers, pay the highest price in the country, and provide resources, training and support for the farming communities it worked in. We provided the initial funding for Zukuka Bora through The Cup That Counts, and to date we have sent more than $250,000 to support its expansion.   

We were never certain the Zukuka Bora would even be able to generate enough high-quality coffee to also become a commercial partner, but after the first harvest (that yielded around 4 tons of good coffee) they moved from being just a philanthropic partner, to becoming a major supplier. We work closely with them to negotiate the price for each harvest of coffee, and have always maintained that if we can price ourselves out of the market for Zukuka coffee than we’ve actually done our jobs! 

Can you shed light on the relationship between Commonfolk and Home Ground, particularly on the successes you’ve achieved in vocational training for the youth?  

Home Ground is a vocational training café located in one of our region’s more disadvantaged communities. Since 2018, Home Ground has empowered over 90 of our region’s young people with vocational training in hospitality. We’ve supported Home Ground with donations of coffee, training and funding, to ensure it can continue to develop the next generation of hospitality superstars.  

The Shared Value Project focuses on the well-being of coffee farmers in Mexico. How does this align with Commonfolk‘s larger vision, and what are the goals you’re targeting? 

The Shared Value Project is the brainchild of Melbourne coffee icon, Ben Whittaker. He was initially working with farmers in Nicaragua but has recently moved to the coffee producing Chiapas region of Mexico, where he is setting up a vocational training café, very similar to Home Ground.

Given the exploitative nature of the conventional coffee value chain, how does Commonfolk plan to continue championing fairness and equity in the industry in the coming years?  

Earlier this year, we also merged with long-term collaborators, Kua Coffee, to take over their roasting business. Kua is a social enterprise that works to source and roast ethical coffee, minimise coffee waste, provide funding for climate positive projects at origin, as well as offsetting carbon emissions by 200%. We hope to weave sustainability and environmental impact into the positive social outcomes already supported by The Cup That Counts and Commonfolk more broadly.  

 

For more information on Commonfolk Coffee, please visit https://www.commonfolkcoffee.com.au/.

Discover more