Follow the Leader: Killian Stokes

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In the latest of our series of interviews with business leaders about their journey so far and plans for future success, we speak to Killian Stokes, co-founder of Moyee Coffee, a ‘FairChain’ coffee company based in Dublin.

Moyee Coffee Ireland was set up by Stokes and his business partner, Shane Reilly, in late 2016. It imports premium-quality coffee that is grown and roasted in Ethiopia and used in workplace bean-to-cup machines.

What’s Moyee Coffee’s elevator pitch?

“We provide speciality coffee from the forests and mountains of Ethiopia to innovative technology companies and creative agencies in Ireland. The average technology worker drinks around two to three cups at work each day, and companies are starting to realise better coffee in the office makes for a more positive and productive work environment.

“Because our beans are grown and roasted in Ethiopia, our coffee supports five times more jobs, incomes and profit to stay in the hands of Ethiopians. We call this approach FairChain, where more of the value chain stays in the country of origin.

“Our coffee is also grown in sustainable forests [not fields] without the use of chemical pesticides or machinery, so our environmental impact is less than half that of normal coffee.”

What was the key motivation and raison d’être behind your business?

“Shane and I had both travelled in coffee-growing countries and seen first-hand the challenges farmers and their communities face. We wanted to set up a business that could create long-term, sustainable impact – economic, social and environmental – in the coffee industry.

“On a trip to Ethiopia at the start of 2016, I met a Dutch entrepreneur called Guido van Staveren van Dijk. He had partnered with Ethiopian entrepreneurs to set up a state-of-the-art roastery in Addis Ababa and created an Ethiopian-branded coffee – the world’s first FairChain coffee – for the Dutch market [Moyee is an Ethiopian word describing the wooden mortar and pestle used to shell coffee beans]. Shane and I decided to bring the brand and the FairChain movement to Ireland and the UK.”

Looking back now at the early stages of your business, would you do anything differently in terms of leadership?

“Because of the success we’ve had with the business-to-business model, we should probably have focused on that as our key beachhead market from an earlier stage.

“Starting out, we spent quite a bit of time figuring out where we fitted in – we looked at opening a coffee shop, but it’s a very different business, and we tested out Saturday markets, but there’s a lot of effort involved and margins can be tough.”

What keeps you motivated and engaged to drive the business on?

“We’re a social coffee enterprise. We want to provide better-quality coffee at a reasonable price to people in work in Ireland, but we’re also driven by the potential our FairChain business model has to create a long-term impact in Ethiopia and across the coffee belt.

 

“As much as I’m motivated by the impact we can have with coffee farmers, the initial problem we’re here to solve is how to get an amazing cup of coffee into the hands of our customers on a rainy Tuesday morning

 

Killian Stokes, co-founder, Moyee Coffee

“We have three driving principles. First, we believe in quality not charity – we believe you should buy our coffee because it tastes amazing. The positive-impact stuff should just be a great big bonus.

“Second, we believe in trade over aid – and, finally, we believe in the principle of shared value, a partnership where more of the money you pay for your coffee stays in the hands of the people who contribute the most. Right now if you buy a kilo of normal coffee, maybe €3 goes back to the country of origin; with Moyee it’s more than €9.”

What does achievement and success look like for your business?

“Looking at the bigger picture, success will be about changing or influencing the broken coffee industry. Every day we drink 2bn cups of coffee, and the global industry is worth almost $100bn a year. However, 90% of coffee farmers live on less than $2 a day, and 90% of coffee-growing countries still rely on international aid to make ends meet.

“Take Ethiopia, for example. It’s the home of coffee and Africa’s largest producer. A quarter of its population relies on the coffee trade to survive, yet the country’s biggest industry is still charity. Ethiopia pulls in $3bn a year in aid but only earns $800m from its coffee.

“If Ethiopia started roasting and branding its own coffee and exporting the finished product, it could triple its income overnight and begin to move beyond aid.”

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?

“Shane and I were both at the Innovation Academy in UCD. Maurice Knightly, a senior lecturer there, was one of the key players behind the success of O’Brien’s sandwich bars, and he would remind us that, as entrepreneurs, we’re first and foremost there to solve a problem for our customers.

“So as much as I’m motivated by the impact we can have with coffee farmers and roasters in Ethiopia, the initial problem we’re here to solve is how to get an amazing cup of coffee into the hands of our customers in their offices at 9am on a rainy Tuesday morning.”

What has been your proudest achievement with your business to date?

“I would probably say beginning to go global with Groupon. We started to supply Groupon Dublin with our coffee in late 2016, and when switched to Moyee, its team stopped going out for takeaway coffees. This shift in behavior was saving each employee about €2.50 a day or €600 a year and saving the company 40 hours of lost time – one whole working week – per year per employee.

“We were then asked to pitch via Skype to the head office in California. As a result, we’re now starting to supply Moyee to a growing number of Groupon offices across Europe and beyond.”

Your approach as a leader is best described by which three words or phrases?

“I might define my approach to work and life as being about adding value. That’s only two words, so maybe “trust” should be the third word. It’s really important that you have integrity. You can fail, make mistakes, even lose money – but your integrity should never waiver.”

How are you preparing and planning for Brexit in your business?

“Brexit is important but there are challenges in every market. At the moment we’re exploring options with IntertradeIreland to expand into the UK. Our goal is to prove the market here in Ireland before scaling up into the UK, probably via online sales first.”

Parting shot: what’s next for your business?

“We have three big projects in the pipeline. First, we’re launching a campaign here in Ireland to sell 1m cups of FairChain coffee in 2018. The impact this will have in terms of farmers, roasters, their families and the forests they can protect will be fantastic.

“Second, we’re building out a blockchain platform to give our drinkers total transparency. We’ll use QR codes on bags and cups to let people see who’s getting paid what across the coffee belt, from the farmer to the barista from their cup of coffee. If you visit blockchain.fairchain.org, you can see every single transaction we paid last season to our farmers, including the 20% premium on beans.

“Finally, we’re joining forces with some international NGOs and partners to purchase the washing station we visited in Ethiopia last November. This is going to be upgraded and handed over to the 350 farmers so they can keep a lot more of the value from their coffee beans in their own community.”

 

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