Building a Coffee Supply Chain through the Lens of Racial Equity

By Phyllis Johnson, Co-founder B.D. Imports and Founder the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity.

We’re excited to have worked with BD Imports to bring coffee from Serra das Cabeças to the UK for the first time. BD Imports’ work with Serra das Cabeças stems from founder Phyllis Johnson’s motivation to highlight the work of Black Brazilian producers.  Creating this partnership connects directly with her personal experience and activism on racial inequity. Phyllis was generous enough to share her story with this particular supply chain. You can learn more about her work through BD Imports and the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity.

My earliest memory of speaking up about inequity was in my teenage years. I was working at a well-known fast-food chain in my hometown, located in the South of the U.S. After landing one of my first jobs outside of farm work, I immediately noticed a pattern the restaurant management seemed to follow. Black staff members were assigned to work in the kitchen, but White staff members were assigned to work the front counter interacting with customers. As a Black woman, I was assigned to work in the kitchen. Regardless of gender if you were Black the assignment was the kitchen. I waited to see if all new hires would follow the pattern I initially observed. Yes, the pattern continued with every new hire. After a short while, at the risk of losing my job or being labelled a troublemaker, I asked the restaurant owner why staff members were assigned positions that seemed to be based on gender and race. She responded by asking, “Would you like to work the front counter?” I said, “yes.” The door was then opened for all employees who had the same desire, but new hires were still automatically assigned according to race and gender.

During my employment at the restaurant, I received special recognition from my high school, recognition that my boss was proud to share with our customers.  For every customer I served at the restaurant, the manager would interrupt my work and share my accomplishments.  She seemed to be proud of what I achieved outside of work and was happy to brag about it.  I thought about how she initially placed everyone in positions based on race and gender and if she could now realize there was value in all of us, regardless of race and gender. Had I been working in the kitchen, she would not have had this opportunity to brag about her employee’s accomplishments to her customers.

Experiencing a separation of people and work based on gender and race always made me wonder about the underlying cause. I knew systems created this separation, and our minds were locked into a way of thinking that was built on racism and biases. Somehow what was unreasonable and illogical had become the norm. This was something I continued to ponder on. 

The Coffee Industry

When I began my career in coffee, the abnormality seemed to continue. This time I noticed it was happening far beyond the small rural community where I grew up, but on a global scale. While travelling on one of my first trips to meet with coffee farmers in El Salvador, I asked about the physical differences between the farm owner showing me around and the workers on his farm. Although an uncomfortable question for him, it provided me with insight. He answered my inquiry about this difference in physical appearance by saying that he was more European and the farmers were more indigenous. Although the conversation on the subject stopped between myself and the farmer, it kept playing in my head.  I was trying to understand the dynamics in the coffee world beyond the aspects of my work in importing green coffee. Looking back, a more interesting conversation about ownership, colonization, and disempowerment may have continued. That work came later in my years of research and experiences travelling in East Africa and beyond. The real question that remained for me was why a separation of power and ownership coincided with race and gender. 

Institutionalizing the need for Racial Equity

Often, we believe that racial inequity in the Global North is a challenge that doesn’t exist in other parts of the world. This is far from the truth. Human nature unfolds throughout the globe. Preference given to one group of individuals over others based on race, gender, tribe, education, etc. seems to always be at play. In 2020 I was fortunate to engage the coffee industry to work on racial equity by forming a not-for-profit, the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. Through the efforts of volunteers, we’ve been able to do some great work in a short amount of time. We envision a racially diverse and equitable coffee industry where talents are recognized and developed to the fullest potential and rewarded. We have carried out our mission by developing engaging programs and partnerships that enable internships, mentorships, and educational scholarship programs. We have introduced a literature review, Race, Equity, and Inclusion in the Coffee Industry and Beyond, that speaks to a more inclusive coffee industry and understanding of coffee and the contributions to coffee.  

Having A Global Perspective in Racial Equity U.K. 

 Having a mix of global leaders at the table was important when the CCRE began its work. Our initial team of volunteers was composed of individuals representing six different countries. 

I’d like to mention two notable leaders, Candice Madison and Georgina Jarrett, both with U.K. roots. Candice served as the CCRE Vice Chair for the first two years of its inception. They are knowledgeable about coffee roasting and possess an unapologetic and unwavering ability to share experiences as one of few Black individuals who have worked in coffee in the U.K. when starting their career. A quote from Candice below: 

When Phyllis asked me to join her in realizing her vision for, what became, the  CCRE, I was not only delighted, but amused. Here I was, an English person who had to leave their home country in order to have the thriving career they have today. Racism was and still is rampant in the UK specialty coffee industry, I don’t have to live there anymore to recognize this, just look at the demographics and the people who are serving coffee, who are roasting your coffee, and who are importing your coffee. My own story, one where I had to leave the country in order to be accepted into my industry, regardless of my qualifications or knowledge, is proof enough. It is time that the UK grapples honestly, authentically and actually with its racist history, and it is of utmost importance that the specialty coffee industry does so. The UK, much like the US and other ethnically ‘white’ countries, are the most obvious ambassadors of a supply chain that hasn’t been modernized since the colonial era (ask yourself why that is). Instead of dismantling it, with the requisite opprobrium and urgency, as per usual, people have a way to work around that – transparency reports, ‘helping the farmer’ initiatives, etc; anything except actually providing an equal marketplace with fair pricing. Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous people are not ‘other’. We comprise the very backs that multi-million pound companies, and the entire coffee industry, is founded on. As a member of this community, if you or your company are not genuinely and actively engaged in anti-racist work, you are disingenuously and actively engaged in promoting neo-colonialism and upholding racist systems and institutions. It’s as simple as that.

Currently, Georgina Jarrett, a U.K.-based coffee educator, has a resume that reflects community building. She’s known as Afropolitan Barista (Instagram @afropolitanbarista), with family roots in the Caribbean. Georgina is leading the work of our education committee and has helped to broaden my education about race in the U.K. and through not-for-profit organizations such as Black Cultural Archives. This organization helps to highlight  the role of Windrush in the lives of past and current Black UK communities, who helped to build the country, yet often left individuals without complete protection and rights as citizens.  If you’re unfamiliar with this history, I encourage you to explore and learn more. Speaking to the challenge of racial equity in coffee:

The UK has definitely had its fair share of racial tension, and the lived experiences of Black people here in the UK closely echo our cousins in the US. 

As we move towards tackling some of these issues, it is my strong belief that brands that have a more (racially) diverse and inclusive supply chain and team, not only increase productivity, but also profitability.  There are lots of statistics now available that back this point, such as, which states that:

“Companies with a diverse staff are better positioned to meet the needs of diverse customer bases, and the cash flows of diverse companies are 2.3 times higher than those of companies with more monolithic staff. Diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets than organisations that do not actively recruit and support diverse talent.”

When moving towards a more diverse supply chain, I feel in the first instance, it is important to ensure that all potential suppliers have a fair and equal opportunity to compete for business. This is where having an equitable strategy comes into play.

Representation is critical in all aspects of life. However, seeing few individuals working in coffee or attributed to the success of coffee impacted how I felt about the industry and what my role was. Fortunately, the speciality coffee industry can be warm and welcoming, with people holding big ideas and dreams and willing to support them. This has been the case for me. There’s no way the goals I’ve set out to achieve would’ve been possible without the assistance and support of others who became my mentors and allies. It has taken the efforts and interests of a large group of people, my own mentor, and others I’ve admired to build the programs I’m proud to be associated with, whether in gender or racial equity.  Square Mile’s buying team, who took the time to find a space to include a coffee from our offering this season, is helping to further our work and to bring awareness.

  • Phyllis Johnson and Serra das Cabeças.

Gender Equity, the Bridge to Racial Equity

As someone who spent time working on gender equity in coffee, one thing we’d always say is that working with women opens the door to more opportunities for expansion. I wasn’t sure about what more opportunities were needed until I looked back to realize that it was the work with gender equity that led me to the opportunities in building racial equity as part of our work.

I had the pleasure of meeting Miriam Aguiar, a Brazilian coffee farmer who joined the newly formed IWCA Brazil chapter in 2014. I posed a typical question to Miriam that I’d been asking many of my Brazilian friends and many of the international coffee trading companies, “Where are the Black Brazilians in coffee?” I’d even gone as far as to inquire from my African friends if they knew the whereabouts of the Black Brazilians. I was told by someone that they were there. They are the tractor drivers on the farm and working in some capacity. One thing that I knew for sure is that they were not on the global stage. They were not well known and well respected for their contributions to coffee. But how could they not be, considering the history of coffee in Brazil? Through African enslavement, Brazil became the number one producer and exporter of coffee. By 1830, coffee was the country’s most important export product. Brazil remains the top coffee global producer in the world today. Coffee was produced by slave labour from the beginning, according to Klein & Luna in Slavery in Brazil. My question was, where is Black Brazilian producers’ position in the coffee supply chain? Based on my past knowledge of how the world operates, I suspected that they were positioned in a specific segment of the industry, underestimated their talents, and did without acknowledgement of their contributions.    

When Miriam Aguiar was asked this question, she saw it as more than just a simple question. It was one to consider what could be our role in uplifting and helping to build opportunities. Miriam sent me a photo of the women workers on her farm, most of which were Black women. I kept the picture hanging in my office, thinking one day we will do something. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew we would respond to this.    

The work couldn’t be rushed; most importantly, it needed to be meaningful and impactful. In 2020 during racial unrest in the U.S. and abroad, we felt this was the right time. One Black family, the Peixotos, whom we’d met on a trip to Brazil in 2015, were first-generation landowners who’d worked together to pool resources to purchase land after generations of sharecropping. They were ready to work towards their dream of exporting their coffee for the first time.  

In 2020 we imported their coffee into the U.S. Miriam opened a successful export company called Apará. Coffee from her 200-year-old farm and from Black and women producers made up the container. The coffees were well received and the families engaged received global recognition for being the first container of speciality coffee exported that Black Brazilians produced.

Over the past several years, we’ve asked the families engaged in the program to invite other farmers who might be interested in our mission. They chose to be inclusive and invite not only Black farmers but farmers who shared similar values. Today we have an outstanding diverse set of farmers from various backgrounds, and this allows everyone to thrive and grow from each other. The farmers in the program understand that we have the added layer of working to enable the small-scale Black farmer but understand that it’s necessary to have everyone at the table. Women’s work in coffee taught me that you could not exclude men. We have a strong group of women in our program and non-Black producers.  

It’s vital for coffee companies to find a balance between focusing on quality and engaging in impactful programs that offer more significant opportunities to the supply chain in the long term. Coffee is so much more than a cup score or flavour notes. It provides opportunities for us to creatively engage in building better pathways forward.  

We are delighted to begin a relationship with Square Mile Coffee as it offers an opportunity to not only supply great coffees and start to showcase Black producers on a global scale and also further the message and ideas of equity. We must all become more thoughtful about the things we’ve normalized in our lives and work. Diversity in our lives and workspaces is beneficial in innumerable ways.

To shop Serra das Cabeças, follow the link here.

Square Mile

Synonymous with London Coffee Culture, we're continually evolving and looking for better solutions to our everyday tasks. We believe that by working together and supporting our partners across the industry and supply chain, we strengthen our relationships, build expertise and contribute towards placing speciality coffee & culture on the map.

Square Mile

Synonymous with London Coffee Culture, we're continually evolving and looking for better solutions to our everyday tasks. We believe that by working together and supporting our partners across the industry and supply chain, we strengthen our relationships, build expertise and contribute towards placing speciality coffee & culture on the map.