Students create zero-waste ethical coffee startup
Bugisu Project is a student start-up which aims to supply ethically-sourced coffee from Ugandan farmers to Australian businesses. As a not-for-profit, they will reinvest in charities and NGOs in Uganda, while working towards a zero-waste policy in Australia.
The idea for Bugisu Project was born in 2017 following a pilot program between UNSW Engineering and Gulu University where students visited Uganda for three weeks and worked on farms with local agriculture students. It was on one of those farms that Brody Smith and Darcy Small met Daniel Okinong.
“Daniel blew us away, not only with his knowledge of local agricultural practices but also world economies and business. He grew up in a coffee growing region and told us about the experiences of the coffee farmers and the multiple challenges they face,” says Smith, sixth year Biomedical and Mechatronics Engineering student.
“Australia has an $8 billion coffee market and people are becoming more ethically aware and interested in transparency with the supply chain, so we thought we could partner with Daniel to create an ethical business that could satisfy Australia’s love of coffee while driving some development projects in Uganda,” he continues.
Back at UNSW their idea continued to percolate. They talked with the UNSW Engineering Student Opportunities team and with academics. They recruited some fellow students and started firming up their business model. They joined a UNSW pre-accelerator program, undertook a one-week coffee trial with four companies in Sydney, and started sketching out a return trip to Uganda to visit farmers, potential development partners and experts in the international coffee trade.
“We travelled back in July 2018 for a two-week, two stage trip,” says Darcy Small, fifth year Photovoltaics and Solar Energy Engineering student. “We are by no means experts in ethical procurement, or setting up an import/export business, but that’s been the exciting thing. We’re talking to as many people as we can and learning as we go. It’s a complex space that even experts make errors in, so we want to do our research properly.”
They spent the first week in Mbale, visiting farmers and researching how the coffee is produced. “Mbale is a little town that sits beneath the beautiful Mount Elgon. Farmers all over the mountain grow coffee, both in Uganda and across the border in Kenya,” says Small.
“We met with Zukuka Bora, a farmers’ collective that educates farmers and makes sure they’re being fairly paid for their produce. We visited several of the large coffee companies in the town, to cross-check what we’d learnt about Zukuka Bora and we spent a few days on the mountain visiting the farmers themselves to cross check everything we’d heard so far,”
There is a lot to do, but we came back from Uganda super excited to see where this project will take us. I think the trip really showed us that what we’re doing is possible.
Darcy Small, fifth year Photovoltaics and Solar Energy Engineering student, Co-Founder of the Bugisu Project
They spent the second half of the trip in Kampala, the Capital of Uganda, where they went door knocking. “We met as many different experts in the development space, the cultural space, and the environmental space as we could to make sure that what we are planning to do is aligned with what the experts in Uganda think is important,” continues Small.
Two projects caught their eye. The first was with BRAC, a development organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor. “BRAC told us about their ELA (Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents) project which involves setting up clubs for girls who are unable to go to school so they can learn about things like financial literacy, agriculture skills and sexual health in a safe space,” Small says.
“We liked the girls’ club idea because we also learned that although women do most of the farming work, when it comes to taking the crop to market, that’s the job of the men who also control the finances. That disconnect means there are a lot of issues in terms of gender equality.”
The other project they are interested in partnering with is called Tree Adoption Uganda, a youth-centric NGO that uses money from companies for carbon offsetting to donate seedlings to vulnerable people.
“Tree Adoption Uganda builds resilience in small holder farmers through landscape restoration. They also empower young people in rural communities by training them to set up and manage tree farms. What they are doing is very impressive,” says Small.
Meanwhile, in Australia the impact is not limited to the warm fuzzy feeling you get from knowing the coffee you’re drinking is ethically sourced and benefitting vulnerable people, Bugisu Project also plans to create sustainable production and consumption practices.
“We’re aiming to be a zero waste coffee supplier by packaging our coffee in re-useable jars and composting spent coffee grounds,” says Smith. “We’re looking to partner with composting groups or local councils who can reuse spent coffee grounds as fertiliser, and for worm and mushroom farms.”
Next steps for the Bugisu Project team are to continue talking with their potential development partners in Uganda, start to drum up business and partners here in Australia and start a recruitment drive among UNSW students to help them get the project going.
“There is a lot to do, but we came back from Uganda super excited to see where this project will take us. I think the trip really showed us that what we’re doing is possible,” says Small.
“We are so grateful to UNSW Engineering for making it all possible. They sponsored our return trip to Uganda, they’ve linked us with people in the industry, and helped at pitch nights. Without a doubt this venture wouldn’t be happening without the Faculty’s support.”
Students: If you are interested in joining the Bugisu Project the team is on the lookout for passionate, initiative-taking students looking to use their skills for social good. Right now we'd love to on-board a financial director, legal/admin person and coffee lovers keen to spearhead our supply-chain and coffee-grounds projects.
Supporters: If you are interested in contributing advice or support, or putting your company's name down for the upcoming pilot program the Bugisu Project would love to hear from you.
Written by: Penny Jones