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Beans for good: youth start-up aims to change the world through coffee

The idea came to then-UNSW engineering students Small and Smith after they completed a summer course at Gulu University in Uganda. There they met local agricultural student Daniel Okinong, who encouraged them to try Mount Elgon coffee. They brought some of the beans back to Australia and had them tested for specialty grading. They passed.

The road to Mount Elgon, Uganda, from where beans are supplied to coffee start-up Bugisu Project.

The road to Mount Elgon, Uganda, from where beans are supplied to coffee start-up Bugisu Project.Credit:Annabel Burnett/Bugisu Project

“That really started the journey of us thinking, ‘Okay, we’ve got specialty produce. What can we do with this to create positive social change, across borders and with a strong environmental focus?’,” Smith says.

They pitched the idea to UNSW Engineering, which granted them $8,000. Named for a region in Uganda, Bugisu has received $20,000 in donations through UNSW Philanthropy, including personal donations from UNSW Chancellor David Gonski and Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs. Bugisu took part in two pre-accelerator and mentorship programs with UNSW Innovation, which provided the project with free training, development assistance and ongoing support.

Bugisu’s four directors (Smith, Small, Wang and Kerr) have invested a total of $10,000 and “somewhere between 500-600 standard working days” into the project since mid-2017, Small says.

Wang, Smith and Kerr are seeking to create a social-enterprise business that feeds back to Uganda-based charities.

Wang, Smith and Kerr are seeking to create a social-enterprise business that feeds back to Uganda-based charities.Credit:Wolter Peeters

A Mount Elgon coffee-farmers union supplies the beans, which are imported green to Sydney. After being roasted by Banksmeadow’s Neoma Coffee, the beans are packed in reusable aluminium canisters, which are delivered to workplaces. (Currently, Bugisu supplies six businesses, including Canva, Tzannes, VivCourt and Finder. Cafes are in the pipeline.) Bugisu is working with Raise the Bar to turn the grounds into a pump-able hand-soap; the remaining grounds are used for compost.

“It’s a way to change business mindsets around the way we consume products,” Small says of the closed-loop, circular economy approach. “We’re trying to turn an everyday product’s waste into another product that we can use every day.”

All profits go to Ugandan charity Love Mercy’s Cents for Seeds micro-loan program. Bugisu Project coffee sells for $40 per kilogram; a minimum of $5 — plus all profits — circles back to Uganda, with at least one woman entering the program for every six kilograms sold.

Darcy Small (left) and Brody Smith (far right) of Bugisu Project with the team from Zukuka Bora, in Mt Elgon, Uganda.

Darcy Small (left) and Brody Smith (far right) of Bugisu Project with the team from Zukuka Bora, in Mt Elgon, Uganda.Credit:Annabel Burnett/Bugisu Project

Currently, the team behind Bugisu are not being paid.

“We’re essentially bootstrapping it,” Small says. “The six of us have committed to this year as growing professionally through starting a social enterprise, and by 2020 to be a fully-functioning business.”

Bugisu is targeting $150,000 in turnover by the end of this year. Their goal is to be supplying beans to 500 businesses in five years.

“At that point, we’ve got an option to replicate it in a city like Melbourne or package it up,” Small says. “There are all the elements to make it work in a city like Hong Kong or Vancouver.”

Riley Wilson is a desk editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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