The Black History of Coffee

It’s difficult to talk about the journey coffee has through without acknowledging its dark past. The road to ending up in all of our lives..

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The Black History of Coffee

It’s difficult to talk about the journey coffee has gone through without acknowledging its dark past. The road to ending up in all of our lives is one that is riddled in slavery, colonialism and injustice. Injustices in this industry that have persisted to the present day unfortunately. The devastating effects that the current infrastructure and business practices within the coffee industry has meant that cycles of poverty, exploitation and alienation have continued to go on. Caffe Praego, our coffee supplier, have recognised all these issues and have built a business that is centered around breaking the oppressive scaffolds and towards assembling a more sustainable and progressive industry, whilst also giving back to the communities they work with.


A Brief History into Coffee

British naval ships sailed across the oceans in search of new lands to conquer through acquiring partial or total control over countries and populating these places with settlers to exploit economically. British colonization was supported by scientific racism or better known as social Darwinism (survival of the fittest). The belief that because they had superior weaponry, were therefore, more technologically advanced than the Africans and so they had a right to colonize and exploit the resources of the Africans in the name of promoting civilization.


By the 1600s occupation in parts of Africa and the Caribbean was well underway. The slave trade overlapped with the increasing demand for coffee, sugar and tobacco and this helped establish The Triangular Trade. The Triangular Trade consisted of three journeys: Europe to Africa would carry manufactured goods, from Africa to the Caribbean and Americas carrying African captures who were forced to work as slaves on these growing coffee plantations in the ‘new world’ and then the final journey which saw this coffee being transported to the UK. In 1660 The Royal African Company was established which was an English mercantile set up to trade along the west coast of Africa. It shipped more African slaves to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. Until the abolition of its slave trade in 1807, Britain had transported a third of all slaves shipped across the Atlantic which in total would be roughly 3.5 million Africans.

Much of the coffee produced then would have arrived at Docklands in East London, specifically The West India Dock. It’s a piece of history that is very close to home for us here at Queen Mary. This coffee would then find itself in coffeehouses scattered throughout London. They served as local financial markets connecting goods and capital streams with seekers, which only helped facilitate slavery and amplified exploitation of Black slaves. Jamaica Coffee House, now called Jamaica Wine House in Cornhill, is celebrated as being the birth place of London’s coffee culture, but under this glossy title hides graphic details of a place where sugar plantation owners would meet with slave ship captains to broker deals over the fate of hundreds of enslaved Africans, thousands of miles away.


Current day exploitation

Coffee is the most popular beverage consumed in developed countries but grown almost exclusively in the poorer developing nations. Coffee farmers typically earn only 7–10% of the retail price of coffee so in order to make ends meet families often resort to putting their children to work. Child labour is widespread in coffee cultivation. When the price of coffee rises, the incentive for struggling families to withdraw their children from school and send them to work increases; at the same time, a fall in coffee prices increases poverty in regions that depend on the crop, which can also prevent children from attending school. Child labour maintains a cycle of poverty over generations as these children lack access to education, this is why it is important for the children to go to school and for the farmers to be paid a living wage so that the amount of money they make is not based on the price of a commodity.

Many coffee workers are effectively enslaved through debt bondage. The 2018 Bureau of International Labour Affairs report on child labour or forced labour listed human rights abuses in 17 coffee-growing countries, mostly against vulnerable coffee farm workers and their families. Recent reports have found that even coffee that is labelled ‘fair trade’ still abuses child labour laws and companies as big as Nestle and Starbucks have been found to be purchasing coffee from these farms. It is not unusual for families who are part of the permanent labour force on a farm to work and live there for generations, sometimes being pushed into debt by the cost of renting land, machinery or interest on loans for emergency healthcare. Forced labour aside, the conditions of work in coffee production are unjust and often illegal.


Caffe Praego

For a while now we have been working with Caffe Praego, our coffee supplier, to bring you the best tasting coffee. They describe this coffee as having “sweet and floral notes, balanced with a superb body and lasting finish that is synonymous with classic Rwandan characteristics” and we wouldn’t disagree!

The company has quite a story to tell; the founder Charles Trace began this journey in Rwanda back in 2007, a country that was still recovering from the horrors of civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The philanthropic nature of Caffe Praego means that its purpose exceeds itself as just a coffee supplier, they’ve been involved in starting and managing many humanitarian programmes after their collaboration with The Point Foundation, they receive £3 from every case of Caffe Praego coffee and 100% of these funds go to helping communities and projects in some of the most desperate areas in Rwanda.

In regions that they source their coffee, they have made a dedicated effort into reinvesting back into these communities via building infrastructure, establishing fair trading practices, bringing stable income streams and investing in education to help break the cycle of poverty in these communities. A far cry away from the exploitative culture around coffee as mentioned previously.


Education in Rwanda is not free and this is a handicap for low income farmers- it’s often a trap tying future generations to the same adversities and hence perpetuating the cycle of poverty. 50p from every 1kg of coffee sold goes to towards just their educational developments alone. These are inclusive programmes that has seen abled and disabled children, children with mental health needs, learning difficulties and orphans. Vocational training is also taught to students who wish to explore more practical skills such as sewing, agricultural training and bee keeping skills. There have been many success stories over the years, one example is Frank Setto, a young boy tragically left orphaned by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. His artistic talents were noticed by Praego who sponsored him through University to achieve his Technology & Graphics Degree. He is now an in-house working designer for Caffe Praego with his artwork featured on their packaging.

You can read more about their current educational projects here.


Education statistics since 2017


Work place ethics

Farmers and labourers are often exploited by corrupt middle men who act as the tether between the famers and labourers in poorer countries and the sellers internationally. This is how forced labour and child labour laws were broken in farms supplying to corporate giants such as Starbucks and Nestle. Due to this broken link products marked as fair trade on our supermarket shelves might not be fair trade at all.

With Caffe Praego their involvement in every step of the journey means that they have cut out the chances of workers being alienated from the final product and from being deceived, mistreated and underpaid.

The corporate social responsibility is a practice to remove the chances of there being an illegal and unjust work environment. Regular meetings are held with the labourers and farmers to receive feedback and critique on their work environment. Ongoing reforms are always made to health, safety and wellbeing measures as well as making sure human rights, gender equality, anti-slavery, anti-discrimination and child labour laws are always met. Collective bargaining lets staff negotiate prices that they feel is fair to them and the work that they do as well as having a say in what other benefits and conditions needs to be included contractually.


Queen Mary Students' Union

Sustainability and progressiveness are part of the QMSU ethos and we are proud of the work our partner, Caffe Praego, have been doing. By buying coffee with us, you know that the profits made will be put into long term investments in these coffee farming communities and establishing a healthy and sustainable farming culture.

The Students' Union is also a charity and all money made from our coffee sales are also reinvested back into the union. We are home to over 300 diverse Sports Clubs, Societies and Volunteering groups to join, as well as an events programme with daytime activities, club nights and social events. We run our shops, cafe´s, bars, restaurants and health and fitness centre.

We want to take the time to thank all the student and staff who shop for coffee at our cafes as their donations have helped this happen. Spending on a cup of coffee with us and it will find its way back to you.





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