Bugisu Project Coffee Is Putting An End To Waste And Turning Profits Into Microfinance

Inspired by the revitalised coffee-growing industry in Uganda, two university friends have created a not-for-profit start-up that seeks to shake up Sydney’s workplace coffee culture.

After seeing the region firsthand, Darcy Small and Brody Smith built a partnership with local Ugandan growers to create the Bugisu Project, a registered charity that sells specialty Ugandan coffee direct to Sydney workplaces.

The business has been able to repurpose used coffee grounds for a second use, and circulate profits back into Ugandan communities.

Australians consume about 6 billion cups of coffee each year with 93 per cent of waste from coffee grounds ending up in landfill, according to a study by Planet Ark.

Mr Small said workplaces seemed a logical fit since so much of Sydney’s coffee culture centred on the workplace, but also amounted to a lot of waste.

“We’ve observed a shift in workplace culture to care more about environmental issues and ethical procurement, so we thought that was a good place to tap into,” he said.

Key points:

  • The Bugisu Project sells Ugandan coffee to Sydney workplaces, collects the waste, then circulates profits back into Ugandan communities
  • The business creates a circular economy by taking all coffee waste components for reuse
  • The start-up has partnered with the Love Mercy program to provide Ugandan women with supplies and support to build their own businesses

“We deliver coffee to workplaces, collect their coffee waste, turn that into a new product like a hand cleanser that goes back to the workplace — so it’s a completely closed loop.”

A closed loop or circular economy takes all waste components of a product for reuse, but is not to be confused with recycling, according to Selena Griffith, senior lecturer in design, innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

“In the case of Bugisu Project they are taking a high-volume product like coffee and reusing the waste to make another product like soap that would replace something else used in daily life,” she said.

The countries found to have had the most success with circular economies are either high-tech or developing nations.

Australian legislation regarding food preservation and packaging are quite old and prevent many closed-loop opportunities.

However, as landfill space becomes less available and more expensive, local governments are turning to the circular model to manage green waste.

Kimbriki Resource Recovery Centre in the northern Sydney suburb of Terrey Hills has been collecting green waste from the local area, which has then been mulched into a massive compost pile, bagged, and sold back to the community.

“We’re seeing local governments having to be quite innovative because waste is becoming very difficult to deal with,” Ms Griffith said.

“The countries that are best at it are either developing where every resource is precious, or high-tech countries like Germany where it’s properly legislated.”

Impact driven

Mr Smith and Mr Small first met at university and travelled together to Uganda as part of a UNSW pilot program that partnered engineering students with subsistence farms in the northern part of the country.

“We spent about a month in Gulu learning a lot and providing ideas from our engineering backgrounds,” Mr Small said.

While there, they met Daniel Okinong, a local agriculture student who grew up in the eastern Ugandan coffee-growing region of Bugisu.

He told them of the development of specialty Arabica coffee on the misty slopes of Mount Elgon.

“Daniel, understandably, found the fact that we spend $4 on a cup of coffee pretty crazy and exciting, so together we decided to see what we could start,” Mr Small said.

As a registered charity, a learning curve for the new start-up was realising that being not-for-profit did not mean they were disinterested in making money, but rather should focus on how that money was getting made and where it ended up.

They chose to partner with another Australian-based organisation, Love Mercy, which has been running a unique microfinancing program called Cents for Seeds.

“They’ll give a woman 30 kilograms of seeds and access to educational workshops and gardening tools,” Mr Small said.

“Through that she’ll be able to create her own source of income — it’s an adapted form of microfinance.”

Every 6kg of coffee sold by the Bugisu Project, a rural Ugandan woman is funded into the Love Mercy program, providing her with start-up supplies and ongoing mentoring and support to build a business.

What’s next?

Bugisu Project was developed with the support of a UNSW entrepreneur program over the course of 18 months.

Mr Small said a business-to-business model was considered the most effective starting point as it created “50 to 500 consumers from one conversation”.

“We were mentored and coached through the process of: What’s a possible target market? What’s a business model? How do you test that your assumptions are all correct?” he said.

But while current operations have been limited to workplaces, the not-for-profit has plans to expand to home coffee supplies later this year.

“We’ve got lots of exciting ideas about how we could engage people who want to buy coffee for home in the same zero waste and impact-driven method,” Mr Small said.

“We’re hoping to launch a campaign towards the end of the year that allows that to happen.”

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