To my friends in the coffee industry:
One of my favorite things about the coffee business is the trend toward social responsibility. Many of our customers are not only operating under fair trade conditions, but are going above and beyond certification standards to support coffee farmers at origin. When I see the powerful social and economic impact of ethical coffee business practices on developing countries, I can’t help but feel deeply honored to be a part of this industry.
Westrock Coffee, one of our customers, is doing its part to make a difference in Rwanda as well as its hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. While this for-profit company denies the label of “do-gooders,” it is doing a lot of good just by practicing free-market capitalism. As my old friend Michael Manley always said, you cannot operate a nonprofit organization without profit.
We recently sat down with Westrock Coffee CEO Steve McElhanon to learn more about his business so we could share the inspirational story with you.
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
Improving communities through coffee and capitalism
Steve McElhanon used to think about coffee once a day, when he filled his mug in the executive wing at Alltel’s headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas. These days, it’s always on his mind. That’s because in April 2009, four months after Verizon completed its purchase of Alltel, McElhanon and three of his colleagues decided to switch from the wireless communications industry to coffee roasting and marketing — and they got there by way of Rwanda.
The origin of great coffee and a great business
In 2005, McElhanon’s colleague and mentor, Scott Ford, visited Rwanda with his three sons. They traveled there to visit the Sonrise School, where he had been helping children orphaned by the 1994 genocide. Ford’s reputation as the CEO of Alltel preceded him, and he ended up having dinner with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Upon realizing their shared beliefs in spiritual, political and economic freedoms, Kagame named Ford to his Presidential Advisory Council, which advises Kagame on economic policies to attract foreign capital.
Rwanda has very little industry, but it has the ideal soil, elevation and climate for growing coffee beans. Helping stimulate the coffee market there would improve the lives of the country’s 500,000 coffee farmers, as well as the national economy as a whole. With Ford’s seed money and a staff of former Alltel executives, Westrock Coffee Holdings began business in the summer of 2009. McElhanon now serves as CEO of its two subsidiary companies, Rwanda Trading Company (RTC), a green coffee export business, and Westrock Coffee, a roasting business based in Little Rock, which became fully operational in January 2011 and has the capacity to produce 15 million pounds of beans per year. In just a short time, this trio of companies has already had major impact in Rwanda, known as “the land of a thousand hills,” as well as the Arkansas town nicknamed “the Rock.”
“Probat Burns is well-known as a high-quality brand. As we built our state-of-the-art facility, we wanted to be able to show it off to buyers with proof that we have the best equipment available. That’s why we chose Probat Burns roasters.” — Steve McElhanon, CEO
Making a difference on two continents
McElhanon makes it clear upfront that Westrock Coffee is a for-profit organization, and he and his team are competitive by nature. “We aren’t do-gooders. We’re capitalists,” he says. “There are lots of nonprofits doing great work around the world, but we believe a profit-based enterprise can do good work, too.”
As Rwanda’s third-largest exporter in terms of size, the Rwanda Trading Company literally has the capacity for big impact. Since day one, the company has worked hard to practice sustainability and bring good ethics to the coffee business in Rwanda. First, by its very existence, the company has helped make the marketplace more competitive, which drives prices up and helps raise the standard of living for everyone. Second, RTC provides superior working conditions. It built restrooms with showers near the coffee fields, which is unheard of in the area. Plus, the company serves one free hot meal a day to the entire workforce, which numbers 200 during peak harvest. They all receive overtime pay, a checking account, health benefits and the safety equipment they need to do their jobs. Most have never received any of these benefits at previous jobs. In 2010, the company gave everyone a raise so they earn 25% above the country’s standard wage for coffee processing — not enough to disrupt the labor market, but enough to help the workers live more comfortably.
Westrock Coffee is also doing great work in its leaders’ hometown of Little Rock. The company hires students from nearby Arkansas Baptist College, a four-year, Christian, historically black college, to work as summer interns. Westrock also welcomes schoolchildren and community groups to tour the facility, learn about the coffee roasting process and attend cupping demonstrations in a coffee lab built specially for this purpose.
Westrock Coffee has also agreed to share profits with organizations on both continents: the Sonrise School in Rwanda and Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. Scott Ford is both a friend and supporter of Sonrise founder Bishop John Rucyahana, and has also been a longtime supporter of Arkansas Baptist College.
Serving a unique blend of benefits
From its business philosophy to its coffee products, Westrock serves up a unique blend of benefits for its customers. Retailers across the United States depend on Westrock for two lines of branded coffees: the premium Westrock Coffee Adventure Series and the Cup of Europe coffees, both available online and at many Walmart locations. Westrock also provides private-label coffees sold in locations all over the country. Every customer benefits from Westrock’s unique story, as well as the team’s exceptional understanding of business processes and ethics. The company has the capacity to serve the needs of the largest retailers and the coffee experts on staff to ensure quality product in every shipment. But to see the greatest benefit, all you have to do is look to the thousand hills of Rwanda, where families everywhere are enjoying a higher quality of life.
Roasting facility quick facts
Location: Little Rock, Arkansas
Size: 56,000 sq. ft.
- Certified organic
- GFSI certified for SQF and BRC