A conversation with Justus Bijlsma (Pure Africa)


Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justus Bijlsma, one of the founders of Pure Africa. We had a exciting conversation about having a clear mission, wanting to make an impact, and of course, about coffee.

First, let's take a look at the delicious coffee from Pure Africa, they have 5 varieties in their own assortment. All of them have character. And... all African coffees. They are handpicked and carefully selected. These are supplied to consumers and businesses, where they also install and maintain coffee machines.

In addition, they have their own blends of green coffee. By purchasing these green coffee beans directly from farmers, as a roaster, you know exactly where the coffee comes from. Pure Africa, together with the farmers, determines a profitable price. The starting point here is a living income. So, it's a wholesale for green coffee beans with a transparent chain.

Most coffee comes from South America, you specifically chose African coffees. What makes coffee from Africa so different?

"It's not that one is better or worse, but the flavors are just a bit different. African coffees actually have the characteristic of being a bit fruitier and more floral than coffees from other parts of the world. You could say they have a slightly fresher taste. This means that our coffees - because they are truly 100 percent from Africa - are generally sweeter than many other coffees."

I'm talking to Justus now, but you actually have 2 founders. How did you start this adventure?

"Yes, that's correct, Ando Tuininga is the co-founder. The beauty of it is, we've been friends since elementary school. And after graduating and getting our first jobs, we increasingly talked about how we could make a positive impact in Africa through entrepreneurship.

Ando lived in Ethiopia for a while and came into contact with the issues there a lot. And of course, these issues were not only in Ethiopia but in many parts of Africa.

We really wanted to make the economic chain fairer and eventually settled on coffee. In East Africa, coffee is the most important export product, we deal with it daily here and very little is paid for coffee.

Instead of just loaning money, we wanted to do this by stimulating entrepreneurship there. Our philosophy is that if we make it easier for coffee farmers to do business, growth will naturally occur."

One of the ways to make that impact is through microloans. How does that process work exactly?

"Yes, for every kilo of coffee sold, we set aside 1 euro. This money first goes to the Pure Africa Foundation and they lend that money to the bank in Rwanda and Burundi at 0% interest. Then the bank lends it to the farmers - these are loans averaging €1000 - at 6% interest. And that's the difference. Because the usual interest rate in Africa is between 20 and 40%."

That certainly makes it very difficult for farmers to do business there.

"Indeed, because those farmers want to repay the loan as quickly as possible, which means they often make short-term investments, such as buying pesticides. And of course, this helps for a while. But we want to encourage them to make long-term investments by providing microloans at low interest rates.

For example, by buying land or coffee trees. This increases the overall production and leads to a more sustainable and higher income.

And we also encourage making the coffee plantation climate-resistant. By buying shade trees, for example. These are additional trees planted on the plantation, which provide shade so that the coffee tree itself is not fully exposed to the sun. But they also protect against heavy rain. By protecting the coffee tree, it gets the chance to root in the soil, which strengthens the soil and increases biodiversity."

Who advises these farmers on this? Because I can imagine that a farmer might think: Yes, a shade tree sounds nice, but it won't increase my harvest. Do you visit them yourselves to give advice?

"No, we do fly to Africa twice a year to visit the coffee farmers and cooperatives, but we have agronomists (agricultural experts) for advising the farmers. We work with coffee cooperatives, and each cooperative has a management team. The management ensures that the agronomists pass on the right information to the farmers.

You have to see it this way, in total the coffee cooperatives have about 12,000 members, the farmers. Together they are the owners of the cooperative. The management works for the farmers; they are like the employers. In turn, the farmers need the management because most coffee farmers read or write English. So, they really need a professional board to ensure the quality of the coffee."

Even though you are a relatively small company with a big mission, do you see that you have actually made an impact?

"Yes, definitely!" Justus proudly tells (and rightfully so!). "The foundation's assets are currently €312,000. But loans that have been repaid are reinvested. So far, we have already provided €460,000 in loans. We've been running the company for 11 years now, and just in the last year alone, €85,000 has been added."

Wow, that's great! Where does that enormous growth come from?

"A bit of a combination, I think. Our company has grown itself, we now sell more coffee and increasingly enter into collaborations in tenders with other companies. About half of last year's turnover came from these tenders. We see that we can really make an impact through these collaborations.

In these collaborations, we supply raw coffee, not our own coffee brands, but we import coffee according to our own philosophy. This means that we pay a fair price to coffee farmers. Then we hand over the coffee to the roasters. They then take care of the practical tasks, such as packaging and distributing the coffee.”

Does that fair price differ significantly from the world market prices or maybe even from Fairtrade prices?

"Considerably more, in fact. While Fairtrade fortunately pays a much better price than the world market price. Still, our mission is for farmers to have a decent living income. And even with Fairtrade prices, that's often still not possible. Hence, we are well above that.

And that's the challenge, of course. It's harder to compete with a product that has been purchased at a high price. You have to work a little harder and do your best to convince people that they are truly helping coffee farmers by paying a higher price."

How is your help actually received? Aren't people skeptical, like: 'here they come again with their Western arrogance'?

"We're not always received positively right away, and I understand that to some extent. They have often experienced people coming with beautiful promises and then never hearing from them again.

What we didn't want with Pure Africa is to come there with money and help, build a school, and then go and tell them how to do things. Only to leave again and have everything collapse.

We really want that when the money arrives there, they decide what to do with it. That's why we lend the money to the cooperative."

The interview is almost over, but I really want to know from Justus where his drive comes from.

"Whenever I travel to Africa, one thing always stays with me. And that is how deeply disturbing it is to see the immense poverty there, especially in contrast to the prosperity we enjoy in our own country. And it's not solely because of our affluence here. But it does have to do with the fact that we've consistently underpaid for our products.

I believe my drive stems from a sense of justice, that we should collaborate fairly and involve the entire chain.

For me, it's very inspiring and crucial that entrepreneurs have more than just a drive to earn money."


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Country of originRwanda IngredientsArabica & Robusta & coffee beans
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CompatibleBeans Weight750 gram