Growing rural prosperity for the world’s poorest farmers requires collaboration across entire value chains, from the small businesses who make up our clients, to the traders, brands and retailers who purchase their products, to the consumers who value sustainably-produced goods. At Root Capital, we don’t often celebrate consumers, or small retail shops, at the end of the value chain, and yet, without them, we couldn’t fulfill our mission.
Meet Charlie Fishbein, the owner of Coffee Exchange, a vibrant, bustling café and roaster located in Providence, Rhode Island, on funky Wickenden Street, on the outskirts of Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. The Coffee Exchange roasts over 40 varieties of coffee, selling several hundred pounds of whole beans and 1,000 cups of brew each day.
Fishbein, whose family started the Coffee Exchange nearly 30 years ago, has a decades-long commitment to the coffee farmers on which his livelihood depends. His brother Bill co-founded Coffee Kids in 1988, and The Coffee Trust years later.
“When we first came into this business, we were focused on the people who worked for us, our employees, and on our customers,” says Fishbein. “But after we got involved with organic coffees… and with Coffee Kids, we realized that the farmers were the people who really mattered in this equation.”
Fishbein’s family got into coffee when its retail business selling cookware, cutlery and appliances went belly up in 1983. “Coffee had been a part of the original retail business,” says Fishbein, “and we thought maybe we could get into the coffee business.” His father, Mel, noticed a little hole in the wall down the street, and they got started with one hundred pounds of coffee, selling the beans, coffee makers, grinders, mugs and filters. Originally they didn’t brew coffee, but one thing led to another.
Today the café and roaster is one of Providence’s most popular, selling varieties from 15 countries, including beans that come directly from Root Capital clients like PRODECOOP in Nicaragua and Pangoa in Peru.
“Our customers have become so sophisticated about what coffee tastes better for them. They know the difference between coffee from Ethiopia or coffee from Guatemala. And that sophistication keeps us on our toes to roast and brew the best cup of coffee the best way possible,” says Fishbein.
As a member of the fair trade, organic roaster association, Cooperative Coffees, the Coffee Exchange is helping to implement Root Capital’s Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative. Fishbein was recently featured in a PRI/BBC interview along with Willy Foote about efforts to combat la roya in Latin America. The 24 roasters that make up Cooperative Coffees pay five cents on the pound for coffee that comes out of Central America and Peru to support farmer training on agronomic practices that minimize the spread of coffee leaf rust and on income diversification strategies. Root Capital is working with buyers to mimic the model.
“The coffee leaf rust crisis is a crisis for the people who grow our coffee,” says Fishbein. “When a large coffee estate of a hundred thousand acres loses 40 percent of its crop, that’s a big deal. When a small farmer who owns perhaps an acre loses 40 percent of his crop that’s a crisis not far away from life and death.”
“For small scale farmers who are dealing with this rust crisis, if they don’t have coffee to sell they don’t eat.”
On New Year’s Day, the Coffee Exchange will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a festive event and fundraiser that includes a silent auction and raffle. In keeping with a 26-year tradition, the café will donate all of the day’s proceeds to The Coffee Trust and Coffee Kids. Food and beverage vendors also donate supplies for the day and baristas donate their time and tips. “While the rest of the city sleeps on New Year’s Day, the Coffee Exchange is rocking,” says Fishbein, who adds, “this year they’ll be hanging off the rafters.”