A cup of coffee in the morning always pairs well with a hearty breakfast and a good read. But in Keba Konte’s opinion, coffee is best served with a side of social consciousness and ethical responsibility.
Konte started Red Bay Coffee as a wholesale business, and, earlier this summer, opened the company’s first storefront, the Coffee Box in Downtown Oakland.
Among efforts to promote fair, direct trade in the industry, Konte is also on a mission to reclaim the whitewashed narrative of coffee making for its rightful owners. “I like to remind people that coffee is Africa’s gift to the world,” Konte said.
After the coffee beans leave their origin farms in Africa, too few Black or brown hands participate in the industry, and the cultural heritage gets lost.
“What our industry is really lacking in is diversity on the import, roasting, and retail sides of coffee,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect where coffee is being grown and doesn’t reflect the communities where the coffee is being sold, like here in Oakland for example.”
Konte’s strategy for promoting diversity and inclusion is to hire folks who might typically have difficulty breaking into the scene. His team at the Coffee Box is composed entirely of people of color, including women and formerly incarcerated individuals.
What’s even more innovative is Konte’s profit-sharing business model: 100 percent of the Coffee Box’s retail profit gets divided up and given to employees, in addition to their hourly wage. The goal is to combat gentrification and prevent the displacement of his employees, many of whom are Oakland natives, by creating livable wage jobs through “radical sharing.”
The profit-sharing system was made possible by cutting loans out of the equation when acquiring the initial capital required to open the store. Those costs were instead crowdfunded by a Kickstarter campaign, which earned contributions from 822 people, totaling $87,000 ( that’s $37,000 higher than any previous campaign in the coffee category). The immense support reflects the public’s understanding of Konte’s mission to give back to his community.
At Red Bay’s headquarters, the public is welcomed into the company’s coffee lab to taste coffee and learn about the trade. Here, Konte hosts lectures and features guest speakers in conversations about the climate and politics of the coffee industry. Previous events have attracted audiences upwards of 300 people.
Inspired by the Black Panther chant, “All Power to the People,” Red Bay’s slogan is “Beautiful Coffee to the People.” The beauty has little to do with the cleancut aesthetic of the company’s products or their inventive storefront (a repurposed shipping container dressed in modern design). Instead, the slogan speaks to the work Konte does in creating meaningful, personal connections at all levels in the value chain of the coffee industry.
“The beauty is in process of forming the relationships we have with the farms, the community, and our workers,” said Konte. “Beautiful coffee is about opening up this process of sourcing and community engagement, and bringing high-quality coffee to the people.” RedBayCoffee.com