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From Mexico to Cuba St: One woman’s mission to create inclusive coffee

They’re helping Mexican farmers grow sustainable coffee, but The Lucy Foundation’s next step is to give disabled Kiwis employment chances. Maria Slade caught up with founder Robbie Francis to find out how she is building a business model with inclusiveness at its core.

Heaven knows how New Zealand would keep functioning if its citizens didn’t get their morning macchiato or trim flat white. 

A young Dunedin woman is using the power of the Kiwi coffee culture to prove it’s possible to run a business that is good for the community and the environment, while at the same time offering opportunities to people with disabilities.

Robbie Francis set up The Lucy Foundation two years ago, named after her own prosthetic limb which she dubbed ‘Lucy Leg’ as a child. Its aim is to create a ‘bean to cup’ value chain from the coffee plantations of southern Mexico through to the cafes of New Zealand, opening up training and employment opportunities for differently abled people in both countries along the way.

Robbie Francis in Mexico (far right). Image: supplied

It’s less about fixing the world than it is about designing an operating model, Francis says. “The lessons we’re learning and insight we have working with products in a place of origin and people with disabilities, and for us working in an indigenous community as well, are things that we can share. If someone else could run with this in a different industry that would be the greatest compliment, I think.”

Francis is doing all of this while completing her PhD at Otago University’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and living with phocomelia syndrome which results in undeveloped limbs. She is a well-deserved finalist in this year’s Attitude Awards, and has had to cut short her latest trip to Mexico to get back in time for the awards ceremony on November 9.

The Lucy Foundation works with farming families in the mountainous Oaxaca region of Mexico to produce coffee for export back to New Zealand. The brand is called Pluma, after the nearest town Pluma Hidalgo. “The reason we chose coffee is because it’s such a big industry in New Zealand, and we love this idea that coffee brings people together, regardless of ability, gender, religion,” Francis says.

Lucy Foundation members Jessica Pantoja-Sanders, who is half Mexican, her husband Ryan Sanders and their two children are now living in Pluma Hidalgo. Their knowledge of the local coffee industry is key, and the couple has run around 30 agricultural workshops teaching farmers ways of improving the productivity of their crops, such as composting and beekeeping. Like many parts of Latin America the area has been affected by climate change and environmental disasters, and new practices are needed to ensure the ongoing health of the coffee plants, Francis says.

Lucy Foundation coffee suppliers in Mexico. Image: supplied

Whereas before it was all about survival from one harvest to the next, the local farmers are starting to implement the practices and plan a future with coffee as their main source of income, she says.

The foundation has also been teaching the locals about coffee making. In partnership with the Lower Hutt-based enterprise Coffee Educators, three deaf Kiwi baristas spent a month in Pluma Hidalgo passing on their skills. The training sessions, in sign language and English, were wildly popular.

The Lucy Foundation has just completed a second round of funding on PledgeMe, raising $20,000, and will now regroup to plan its next moves. So far the focus has been on the Mexico end “because we had to start somewhere”, but the next step is creating opportunities for disabled New Zealanders as baristas and in the hospitality industry generally, Francis says.

The first batch of Pluma coffee was roasted by Flight Coffee and sold in New Zealand with support from both Flight Coffee and Coffee Educators earlier this year. They are now waiting on the new harvest. It envisions expanding on such partnerships, and building the Pluma brand around the stories of the people who produce it. It wants its customers to know that when they buy the product they are investing their money in human rights and ethical enterprise, she says.

“We’re not trying to do everything ourselves, we’re trying to show people how we did it in the hope that they also will become inclusive and accessible and diverse within their business models and industries,” Francis says.


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