One of the many critical issues affecting the sustainability of coffee production in poverty-stricken areas is the lack of access to clean, safe drinking water. This basic human necessity that’s so easily taken for granted in developed, consuming countries amounts to what is arguably one of the most glaring examples of inequity in the supply chain, according to the new subscription-only startup Libra Coffee, which is aiming to balance the scales.
With a Diedrich IR-24 in an approximately 900-square-foot roastery space, Libra Coffee founder and head roaster Eric Medina crafts a variety of offerings from which a brief, user-friendly online coffee-taste quiz helps consumers make a selection. Then, for every bag delivered to a customer’s door, a water filter is delivered to an area that lacks clean water. Libra states that each filter purifies enough water for two adults to get all they need for five years.
“Everything means something with this thing. Nothing is half-assed,” Medina told Daily Coffee News, citing the company’s logo as just one example of the level of scrutiny they put into every aspect of the venture. The two wavy water lines at the bottom represent the two people supplied with clean water for every bag of coffee purchased. The sunshine represents happiness and the roundness of the logo as well as the yin-yang shape of the coffee bean embody the company’s vision for social equilibrium.
“That was the whole point of the Zodiac sign of the scales, it’s everything about equity in the supply chain,” said Medina, who has both studied academically and witnessed firsthand the dramatic disparity between a farmer’s compensation and quality of life as versus that of the roaster or retailer. “It’s so vastly different. I just wanted to at least get to the point where we’re building awareness of issues of clean water as one of many things that are needed.”
Medina’s masters degree in coffee and economics was gained at Illy Caffé’s Università del caffè di Trieste, which is an unusual distinction for an American roaster. A lifelong coffee-lover, Medina first learned of the program in conversation with the barista in a tiny backstreet café in Istanbul, where his wife was doing a study-abroad program for her MBA at the time. Later in Trieste, Medina received not only a formal coffee business education but also a good soak in Italy’s rich, traditional coffee culture. After that, he and his wife spent some time traveling in Scandinavia, which was another influential adventure in coffee for Medina.
Upon his return to the States, armed with a wealth of knowledge and an altruistic goal, Medina set forth on his entrepreneurial journey. Beyond an understanding of the product and the supply chain, the Illy program also left Medina with a wide network of helpful contacts. “My masters had people from all over the world. Colombians, Honduras, Burundi, Mexico, Ethiopia, Brazil,” said Medina. “Those kinds of relationships became super valuable to what I’m doing.”
Libra Coffee wants to do more than shake hands with some bigger charity’s representatives and cut a check every once in a while. “I don’t distrust the average person, but there are a lot of organizations that I know that it kind of goes towards just feeding the business itself more than to helping the people,” said Medina, who wants nothing to do with the superficial culture of greenwashing in which he sees larger companies engaging.
To that end, Medina at first tried delivering some of the water filters himself, but learned fairly quickly that it’s not always as easy as just showing up and asking around. “When I went to Honduras for a trip, the owner of the coffee farm was the one who ended up with the water filter,” recalled Medina. “He bullied me into giving it to him. Afterwards I was pissed off about it.”
“That’s when I realized that I needed somebody that I could trust down there, that knows exactly the landscape better than me,” said Medina. “I’m looking to position these things around schools and wherever I can get the most density of helping the most people.”
Medina not only wants to make concrete improvements to people’s lives, but to work directly with real people to get it done. As an aid effort in its infancy, Libra doesn’t exactly have the resources or the connections to engage with major on-the-ground organizations anyway, so Medina’s going about it in as personal and natural a way as possible: with a little help from his friends.
“I trust the people that were in my program in Trieste and that alumni organization that I’m a part of,” said Medina, who has enlisted the help of his former classmates for the task of carefully delivering water filters to the areas and people most in need. “I have tons of relationships all over that know me, that are more than willing to participate in the distribution of the filters. They’re all in various different positions in the industry, from representing cooperatives to media to sustainability.”
Medina hopes that in the future, as the project expands, he’ll be able to partner with a vetted, upstanding organization to fulfill the mission on a larger scale, but for now, his system works. “I have a good solution at the moment,” he said, confident that his friends and associates are getting the filters into the hands of people that need them the most.
Meanwhile Back in California, Libra Coffee has launched an Indiegogo campaign as a means of giving people the opportunity to sample the products a la carte without a subscription, while also raising awareness of the brand as a first step in its overall marketing push. Of the $25,000 funding goal, about 25 percent will go directly to the acquisition and delivery of water filters, while the rest supports further brand-building and awareness-raising initiatives, getting the Libra Coffee subscription roasting business on its feet.
Another next step for Libra is to bring on additional staff to handle things like social media and order fulfillment while Medina focuses on the roasting, sourcing, and networking for water-filter delivery. In the meantime Medina endeavors to keep it simple, roasting only the best coffee to the best of his ability, packed in basic craft bags with hand-applied stickers sometimes slightly askew. “That’s not what the point is,” Medina said of the intentionally humble packaging. “The point is that we’re trying to make a difference, and the coffee should speak for itself.”