Reform of workers rights in the coffee industry is happening, slowly but surely. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the unfair conditions suffered often by coffee farmers, and Fairtrade products are becoming more and more the norm. However, perhaps we haven’t been focusing enough on the plight of those further up in the supply chain, closer to home. What about the minimum-wage coffee shop workers and baristas that provide you with your daily cappuccino? What about how, despite it being made possible by the hard work of people of colour, white hipsters have become the face of the coffee industry?
Keba Konte is and has been a lot of things- an artist, a photographer, a journalist – but with his wholesale and retail business, Red Bay Coffee, he’s also expanding and revolutionising the coffee industry.
In a world where the topic of diversity is at the forefront of many of our minds, Konte isn’t just talking the talk. He prioritises hiring not just women and people of colour, but previously incarcerated youth and foster kids, describing Red Bay Coffee as a ‘’second chance employer’’. He dismisses the idea that cultivating a diverse workforce is a struggle- in an interview with Barista Magazine, he stated that ‘’it’s about signalling that you’re an accepting environment… Honestly, if you make (diversity) a priority, it’s not that hard.’’.
This work is particularly important in Oakland, where Red Bay Coffee is based, a city with a relatively high black and latino population. Despite white people only making up around 34.5% of the Oakland population, they remain the face of the coffee industry. By looking outside of coffee spaces for hires, Konte is facilitating a healthy and safe working environment, as well as ensuring that people of colour are represented all the way through the supply chain.
But Konte’s push for workers’ rights goes beyond diverse hiring strategies. His employees are all paid the minimum wage, yes- but that doesn’t include tips and a cut of all company profits. Full-time workers receive a benefits package, and open communication and support is prioritised across the board. It all adds to facilitate a revolutionary working environment, one that’s focused on equity over profit in a way that’s rarely seen.
And the story of Red Bay Coffee proves that this profit-sharing business model is what consumers actually want- rather than being a quick and easy way to kill your business as is so often perpetuated. In the original Kickstarter campaign that was used to fundraise for the project back in 2014, the startup exceeded its original $8000 goal, not to mention the amount raised by backers on WeFunder. It’s one thing to pioneer a new, socially-conscious business model, but it’s quite another to prove that that same business model is actually viable.
In a world where the troubles of race and income inequality are increasingly being brought front-and-center, the success of Keba Konte and Red Bay Coffee is quite timely. In creating a diverse, equitable, and flourishing working environment, Konte has proven that enterprise and workers rights do not have to be incongruent. Now it’s left to consumers to put their money where their mouths are, and incentivise other businesses to adopt Konte’s profit-sharing model. If business’ ability to transcend simple profit and engineer social change and empowerment was even a question, Konte has proven it, by delivering so much more than just coffee.