Social Entrepreneurship Spotlight: The Face Inside Your Coffee Cup

Been to Starbucks lately? How about Dunkin’ Donuts? Maybe you visited a local mom-and-pop café for your favorite caramel mocha. Wherever the barista, whatever the flavor, we do love our coffee.

Coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity behind crude oil, and it is popular worldwide. The U.S. consumes the most coffee in the world in terms of number of pounds annually, and the Netherlands drinks the most cups. So here’s a question for you. When was the last time you considered – and valued — the human element in your coffee?

70-pound Sacks

Every cup of coffee you drink has a face – the face of a coffee bean farmer in an often economically depressed coffee-growing region of the world, like Central America or Africa. As a recent article in the Santa Fe Reporter points out, the small-scale growers who produce much of the high-end specialty coffee sold to coffee drinkers like us do so by hand, plowing and planting fields, harvesting beneath a punishing sun and carrying 70-pound coffee sacks on their backs. And they receive very little money in return.

Fiorella Riccobono, 18, had never thought much about the people who produced the coffee she drank before she signed up last year as a junior to take a social entrepreneurship class at Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida. What came next was a much deeper understanding of global opportunity and social and economic justice.

In the past few years, Riccobono, her classmates and teacher Kim Zocco have partnered with St. Thomas University’s Center for Community Engagement to develop the Cocano Coffee Project. The initiative works to help coffee farmers in Haiti’s poorest region earn a just wage. Many people who live in Haiti, especially in the Northwest, are jobless, uneducated and poor, despite living in a region with the ideal climate to grow some of the best coffee in all the Caribbean. Many families do grow and sell coffee beans, and that’s where the economic and social injustice enter into the equation.

“There are so many steps and middlemen [someone who facilitates a transaction between parties – in this case the producer and the buyer] between the moment the coffee bean is harvested to the time it becomes your morning cup of coffee,” notes Riccobono, who just graduated from Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy and is headed to Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, in the fall. “The majority of the world’s coffee is grown on small, privately owned farms. On these small farms, machines aren’t used and the fruit is handpicked. After the harvest, farmers depulp, ferment, dry and sort the coffee beans. These farmers make approximately 76¢ per pound [for all the work they do].

“By the time the bean leaves the unjustly paid farmer and becomes your cup of coffee, that 76¢ becomes between $11 and $15 per pound”

. By exploiting these farmers, the profit margin is enormous.” In other words, the end seller makes a big profit off the same beans for which the laborers who did all the work were paid pennies.

The Cocano Coffee Project is a great example of what Riccobono calls “human-centered problem-solving.” The social enterprise works like this: St. Thomas University faculty and business students travel to Northwest Haiti on mission trips to buy high-quality coffee beans directly from the farmers who produce them. In return, they pay them a just wage, $4 per pound, which is more than $3 higher than what they get from typical middlemen who pay only 50% of the New York “C” Market value of the coffee, which averages around $1.30 a pound. The team brings the raw, green coffee beans back to the classroom, where the process of roasting, promoting and selling begins. Zocco partnered with St. Thomas University to develop the dual-enrollment social-entrepreneurship course at Archbishop McCarthy in order to offer this exciting engaged-learning experience to her high school students.

A $700 Profit

Riccobono and her classmates sell the organic coffee in Florida for $13 per 12-oz bag and hold special iced café latté sales at school for $3 per cup. They earn $1.65 per iced coffee serving after expenses, which include cups, straws, sugar and other production materials. The first semester they sold their coffee, they had a $600 profit. Last semester, they netted more than $700. All these earnings are returned to a special farmers co-op set up in Northwest Haiti, where the money is reinvested in farming, salaries and community health care and education.

In addition to sales and coffee bean expertise (her class works with roaster Joel Polluck of Miami’s Panther Coffee, who travels to Haiti to check on trees and quality), Riccobono has learned valuable business skills related to advertising and how to promote an enterprise on social media. The students also video message with the farmers to stay in touch with the product, process and people involved in the social enterprise, and they learn everything from commodities trading, product placement, branding, marketing, accounting, inventory, management and more.

Most importantly, notes Riccobono, she has learned empathy and a passion for exploring diverse cultures. “

“When I think of social entrepreneurship, I think of opportunity,”

” says Riccobono, who plans to double major in finance and social entrepreneurship in college. “I see it as an opportunity to explore different cultures and situations occurring globally, and seeing what the world has to offer and what I can give in return. To me, social entrepreneurship is fair trade and global and economic sustainability for developing nations. Working directly with these farmers and seeing how grateful they are, truly makes me appreciate all I have and the society in which I live. I hope the Cocano Coffee Project inspires other teenagers to help create innovative solutions for people who have lost all hope in experiencing social, political and economic justice.”


1.  What is a fair wage?

2.  Why do you think it’s so easy for middlemen to exploit coffee bean farmers in Haiti and other coffee-growing regions of the world?

3.  Fiorella Riccobono describes social entrepreneurship as “fair trade and global and economic sustainability for developing nations.” What does she mean by this? What does social entrepreneurship mean to you?

4.  What other products require us to value the human element, even though we may not immediately see the connection when we are buying them?