Alice is another incredible human that I was fortunate enough to meet through an ex-housie. While we often shared time on the couch or around the dinner table, Alice’s humble nature meant that I only learnt of her life-changing social enterprise thanks to some social media stalking. I became particularly keen to reconnect after discovering that she was launching a new project. Chatting over brunch one Sunday morning, Alice’s story transformed me from sleep deprived to uplifted. (And at the risk of rolling out a cliche) if more of us adopted Alice’s attitude toward others and approach to life, the world would be a kinder and fairer place.
“After high school, I tried to study international relations three times but couldn’t find my groove. So, I taught English in China for ten months, came back and got into the performing arts. At a ballet class one day, I was looking at myself in the mirror in pink tights and a pink leotard and life’s trajectory suddenly didn’t feel right. I’d always had a love of food so I ended up completing a chef’s apprenticeship. But, ultimately, I knew I needed to do something for other people.
There’s always been a strong sense of social justice in my family. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my dad’s shoulders at protests. I also did a lot of protesting in my teens — shouting at the world and not really being heard.
Then, fourteen years ago, at the request of the state government my dad went over to Timor to set up his first social enterprise, repurposing computers. While there, he became interested in climate change and read a book, Now or Never, which explained that reforestation was the way to reduce our carbon footprint. He met with the author, Tim Flannery to find out more.
So, together, Dad and I founded WithOneBean. We work directly with farmers in Timor Leste to produce socially, ethically and environmentally conscious coffee.
A chance meeting with someone at the airport who was importing coffee led to a partnership that would go on to flourish. Initially, we were working with about 300 Timorese farming families bringing in five tonnes of coffee and now we’re working with about 650 farming families bringing in 20 tonnes of coffee.
Early on we decided to cut out the middlemen. We bring the coffee in green, roast it and package it ourselves here in Melbourne before selling it to organisations who use it for staff consumption in their offices.
We assumed that the story — 100% of profits funding environmental and educational projects in Timor — would sell the coffee. And to a certain extent it does. But, it doesn’t encourage repeat purchases so, we had to rejig our model. It’s not about us being do-gooders, it’s about showing off a quality product. Oil is Timor’s biggest export, but given it is a finite resource, they need sustainable models in place with other high quality exports, like coffee.
We visit Timor every harvest season and work directly with the community to see what happens from farm right through to cup. We learn so much from the locals and work with them to improve quality. Small things make a big difference — raising drying beds so coffee isn’t drying directly on the ground, ensuring coffee is picked and processed straight away and separating coffee from one lot from coffee from another lot.
We pay our farmers up front which isn’t usually the case. A lot of other farmers will only receive half up front, if anything, which leaves them without money and in complete uncertainty.
Climate is adding to this uncertainty by having a massive effect on the coffee harvest in Timor. The 2017 season has been a really low harvest and there are rumblings of this going on worldwide, making the work of WithOneSeed particularly pertinent.
Another issue is food security. Timor has the highest prevalence of child malnutrition in the world. On my trips to Timor I would often see food left to rot during the abundant season, with the infamous hungry season just around the corner. It was devastating. The hungry season lasts for about four months of the year and during this time there is basically nothing to eat.
Being a chef by trade, I always wanted to return to food so I had a wacky idea to address the issue of food security, wastage and malnutrition through a food preservation project called Pickle Bank.
I was selected to do a young social pioneers course through the Foundation for Young Australians, where I spent three months developing the idea. I pitched for funding at the end of the course and initially didn’t get through. But, after a second round of pitching I was successful and my pie in the sky idea suddenly became real.
The project will start in Timor but can be transported to any community as it will use repurposed shipping containers which will be built in Melbourne. We recently signed the lease for a new, bigger warehouse where we will develop and test the model. We’re looking to establish a few relationships with grocers in Melbourne so we can get their food waste. We’re going to be looking for volunteers by reaching out to refugee and migrant communities. By engaging those who may feel a bit isolated we will also provide them with new skills, new networks and access to produce to take home. Once this has been tested locally, the first container will be shipped to Timor’s capital, Dili early next year and we plan to roll these out across each of Timor’s 13 districts
WithOneBean has a strong philosophy around empowering people. I don’t want to walk into a culture that’s not my own and tell people what to do. I want ownership of the Pickle Bank project to sit with the communities in Timor. It’s not about charity.
We have two staff members we’ve been working with for over a decade now who will be our Pickle Bank Country Managers and we will employ other locals to run the program. As a community engagement project, anyone can come and learn a new skill.
Initially, the project may be a bit dependent on WithOneBean for funding, but in time we need it to become self sustainable. The idea is that farmers will come to the Pickle Bank hub, sell their produce and get a fair price for it. The Pickle Bank will turn this produce into preserved food and sell it back to the community, also at a fair price. Putting money into the community will help the economy develop.
As this all started with a reforestation project, we don’t want our footprint to be greater than what we’re doing. So the project will run with renewable technologies such as solar energy and bio-gas.
Issues like climate change and food security feel like massive, global problems, but if you just break them down and work at the community level you can start to have a major impact.
It’s funny to think that I hated my first trip to Timor. The poverty was so extreme. I had lived in China and travelled through India and Nepal, but this was on another scale. I felt totally out of my depth and told myself I’d never go back.
But, as I’ve come to know the country and its people better, I’ve realised we have so much to learn from their community. As subsistence farmers, they live on what they’ve got, whereas we tend to take and consume so much more than we actually need.
Every time I come back from Timor, I always feel a bit disjointed from our society and the longer I go for, the longer that feeling lasts. I get annoyed at our excess — the abundance of crap on the shelves at the supermarket and the amount of money we spend.
I can’t begrudge the fortune I’ve been born into. I just know I have a duty to leave the world in a better place than I found it because my privilege allows me to do that.”