From Invisibility Towards Inclusivity: Building Diversity In the Coffee Industry

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Daiane Vital embracing her mother Vanilda de Souza Vital, south of Minal Geraris Brazil. Photo: Danielle Sereio

“The industry must do a better job at telling coffee’s history, beyond those who carried the bean throughout different parts of the world…”
– Phyllis Johnson, BD Imports, NCA Board Member


In the most recent issue, Roast Magazine published an insightful and important article by Phyllis Johnson, NCA board member and BD Imports president & co-founder.

Strong Black Coffee, Why Aren’t African Americans More Prominent in The Coffee Industry?” features perspectives from 14 black coffee professionals.

The following is a summary of the original piece, with new reflections and an update from Johnson’s recent trip to Brazil during International Coffee Week.

Daiane Vital and Phyllis Johnson at International Coffee Week

Daiane Vital and Phyllis Johnson at International Coffee Week, Brazil, Belo Horizonte


How Past Informs Present

Data shows that African Americans are less likely to choose coffee in comparison to other US ethnic groups. Yet coffee’s history links major contributions not only to Africa, but the diaspora around the globe.

Ethiopia is praised as the birthplace of coffee and for giving us some of the most prized coffees in the world.  Those of African descent continue to play a key role in production.  The enslavement of African people was the original source for coffee production in Brazil, the Caribbean and the West Indies, yet research shows that African Americans are less likely to choose coffee in comparison to other US ethnic groups.  In addition, fewer African Americans are employed in the industry.

In trying to understand the complex and loosely connected relationship between coffee and African Americans I considered my personal life experiences, along with myths I was told about coffee as a child.  I consulted a collection of history books on the subjects of coffee and slavery, in addition to conducting many interviews.

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D’Onna Stubblefield, coffee consultant, New York

The industry must do a better job at telling coffee’s history beyond those who carried the bean throughout different parts of the world such as the missionaries, travelers, traders, and colonist.

We must tell the full extent of coffee’s history acknowledging those who were enslaved to work in coffee fields.  Understanding that the first beans that arrived on our shores were produced by the enslaved, prepared and served by the enslaved.

While we are very comfortable in present day story-telling about coffee farmers in our marketing programs, we must not look away from the past.

Denis Ngochi

Denis Ngochi

Some may not see the connections between the effects of slavery, racism, and inequality and how this links to low participation of African Americans in many industries including coffee.

Denis Ngochi, co-founder of Elephant Coffee Importers shared:

“You have to unearth history yourself to avoid ignorance.  For some it hurts, for others, it’s shameful and no one wants to be hurt or ashamed, but we have to know this history in order to understand what’s happening today and grow from it.”

Marketing plays a tremendous role in the products we chose.

While celebrity endorsements for coffee are often white men, carbonated beverages and fruit juice advertisements tend to more often feature young black professionals.

As a result, research shows that blacks over index on carbonated beverages and fruit juices.

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Gisele Coutinho at International Coffee Week Brazil, Belo Horizonte

Perspectives and Reflections From Brazil

Although the article is centered around black coffee professionals in the US, I decided to include perspectives from of two Brazilians, Daiane Vital, a coffee picker in Mantiqueria and Gisele Coutinho, from São Paulo who works in coffee consumption. Their stores are directly connected to the production of coffee through past generations.

A few weeks ago, I attended International Coffee Week in Brazil where I met up with Daiane and Gisele and shared a copy of the article with them.  Perspectives from blacks in America and Brazil are similar, both reflecting on the consequences of a lack of representation and visibility.

Gisele Coutinho, founder of Pura Caffeina in São Paulo, says: 

“As a small business owner and one of few black Brazilians in the consumption market, I am often asked whose brand it is and who I work for.  I am not thought to be the owner of the business…”

Daiane Vital at International Coffee Week in Brazil

At International Coffee Week in Brazil

Inclusivity Is An Industry Imperative

According to the NCA National Coffee Drinking Trends (NCDT) report, consumption among African Americans fell from 46% in 2017 to 42% in 2018.

In the category of “gourmet coffee beverages (net)” – which includes expresso-based beverages, non-espresso-based beverages, traditional coffee- gourmet and ready to drink coffee beverages – the 2018 survey indicates 42% of African Americans drink beverages in this category, compared to 64% of Hispanic-Americans and 53% of Caucasian-Americans and 59% percent of Asian-Americans

Coffee is an important industry in the US.  In 2015 the industry created 1.7 million jobs, 1.6% of the US GDP and had an annual economic output value of $225 billion, based on the NCA Economic Impact report.

In addition, research shows that coffee offers health benefits, consisting of improved longevity, cardiovascular health, liver health, diabetes, cancer and stroke, all of which are significant issues for African-Americans.

Moving Forward Together

Over the past 20 years that I’ve worked in coffee, I’ve come to realize that although we all face similar challenges, the additional challenge of having a lack of representation, little sense of belonging, and virtual invisibility within the industry can have a profound impact on the success of an individual and their business.

The article offers possible solutions to improving participation in the industry by providing questions to consider when building a more diverse and inclusive team. It encourages readers to invite more diversity to the table.

In addition to expanding coffee consumption, we should consider the creativity and insight that a more inclusive industry provides.

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Strong Black Coffee, Why Aren’t African Americans More Prominent in The Coffee Industry? | Roast magazine


PHYLLIS JOHNSON is president of BD Imports and the recipient of the 2018 Responsible Business Supplier of the Year award from Radisson Hotel Group. Her story has been featured in several books and articles. She’s an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the coffee supply chain, gender equity, economic opportunities, and the complex issues of race and coffee. She’s a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a degree in microbiology, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with a degree in public administration. Johnson is a current board member of the National Coffee Association USA and has served on numerous other coffee industry boards. She lives in Georgia with her husband, Patrick. They have three children, Marcus, Matthew and Maya.

Photos via Roast and Phyllis Johnson

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