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The startup that’s changing how the world sees coffee

The startup that’s changing how the world sees coffee

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Mikkel Bache

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Brewing a cup of coffee takes less than one per cent of what’s in the beans. What if we could use the rest to create healthy products, reduce carbon emissions and support farmers in the global south? These three young entrepreneurs are doing just that.

Forget everything you know about coffee.

Connoisseurs may enthuse about the crema, the aroma or the leaf pattern the barista made in the foam. As they sip, they might picture the hillside where the beans were grown. What they probably won’t consider is the 99% of the coffee grounds that end up in the bin. Is there really nothing useful we could do with them?

This is the question that inspired three young entrepreneurs to start a business: Kaffe Bueno.

Juan Medina, Camilo Fernandez and Alejandro Franco are all from Colombia, one of the world’s major coffee exporters. For them, it’s a lot more than a drink. It’s a crop, an industry, a livelihood for millions of people. When the three came to study business in London, and found themselves hanging out with coffee-mad Scandinavians, they saw another side to coffee. Alejandro says: “For them, it was a cultural thing. It was about the taste, the texture, family, friends, having a nice time, having a piece of cake.” But it wasn’t so easy to relax over a cup when they knew that farmers back home were struggling due to a collapse in prices.

A bigger picture began to come into focus, of the global coffee supply chain in all its flawed complexity, unfairness and environmental cost. There had to be a way to make it better, and the three were determined to find it.

The real cost of coffee

In Colombia, coffee is ubiquitous. “They use it as a spice, I’ve seen my mother and grandmother dye their hair with it,” says Camilo. Alejandro goes on: “If you fall down and hurt yourself your grandma will put coffee on it – and it would actually work. That thought was circling around our heads. Why did that work? What does coffee have in it that makes it anti-inflammatory?

“We’ve been treating coffee as waste, when actually it’s a wasted resource”

ALEJANDRO FRANCO

“You have to look at it like any other plant: what it is composed of and what it can be used for. We realised that coffee is composed of lipids, carbohydrates, proteins, cellulose, antioxidants, and a lot of health-beneficial compounds. And when you brew a cup of coffee, less than one per cent of that ends up in your cup.” As for the rest, “we’ve been treating it as waste, when actually it’s a wasted resource.”

All that wasted coffee comes at a big cost in carbon emissions: the environmental impact of producing and transporting coffee is considerable, and when used grounds end up in landfill, the carbon absorbed when the plant grew, finds its way back into the atmosphere.

With their sights set on protecting the climate, getting a fair deal for farmers, and contributing to better nutrition, it might sound like Kaffe Bueno are trying to solve a lot of problems at once, but, as Alejandro keeps pointing out, “everything is connected”.

When Kaffe Bueno started out, they could only recycle as much as they could carry. This year their recycling operation aims to process 50 tons. Left: Juan Medina, centre: Alejandro Franco, right: Camilo Fernandez

How it started

Kaffe Bueno’s mission to disrupt the coffee industry began in the fields where the beans grow. The first thing they did was spend four months back in Colombia, visiting farmers and learning about the challenges they face. From there, they followed the journey that millions of tons of beans make every year, to the corner of the world that gets through the most coffee per capita: Scandinavia. Specifically, Denmark, which also ticked the boxes of advanced recycling infrastructure, high market share for organic goods, and incentives for startups.

When the trio first arrived in Copenhagen they supported themselves by importing coffee and roasting it by day – and devouring academic papers by night. Initially the idea was to turn coffee waste into biofuel. “That changed when we started seeing the potential applications,” says Alejandro. “We could see higher value in extracting single molecules or compounds to make ingredients.” In 2017 they secured a grant from a state-owned innovation fund to work on extracting oil from coffee grounds. All they had to do was get hold of some.

“We took turns to go on our bikes to pick up used coffee grounds from cafés”

ALEJANDRO FRANCO

So they mapped out every coffee shop in the city and went around interviewing the owners about how much coffee they used and what they did with the waste. Some patiently answered their questions, some had no time for them, and a few lit up as if they’d been waiting to be asked. “We took turns every day to go on our bikes to pick up the coffee,” says Alejandro. “That year we collected about 400kg between the three of us.”

A few years later, and Kaffe Bueno’s recycling service is an established operation, on track to process 50 tons of coffee from the cafés, restaurants and hotels of Copenhagen this year. By the end of next year they aim to have a facility up and running to process up to 1,000 tons a year. And they don’t just take any old coffee – they require a minimum annual volume, and it must be 100% Arabica and fully traceable.

New frontiers

Currently, the grounds that Kaffe Bueno collects are broken down into an oil, an exfoliating agent, and a flour, which is ideal for the burgeoning market for gluten-free foods. Camilo says: “For us, this is basically the perfect raw material to tackle head on the transition to a bio-based society, because we can gather locally for domestic markets by collecting what is there, and also prevent carbon leakage from imports of unsustainable ingredients that we can replace.”

The idea of turning waste into new products isn’t some cute gimmick – it’s serious business. Kaffe Bueno secured a €1.1 million investment last year, and the upcycled food industry that they are part of is estimated to be worth about €40 billion. “Five years ago people were asking, why are you doing this?” says Juan. “Now they’re saying, I want to invest.” And when big companies realise others are extracting value from their waste stream, “it’s like a kid seeing someone else play with a new toy”.

Kaffe Bueno’s coffee oil is used by cosmetic brands including UpCircle, Pasion, and even skincare giant Nivea, which recently launched a line called Coffee to Care, with a face cream, shower gel and body lotion. So far it’s only a limited edition, but it represents a major vote of confidence from one of the world’s biggest manufacturers.

Kaffe Bueno’s upcycled coffee oil is found in these products from Nivea (left) and Pasion (right)

Turning what was once considered waste into something useful has positive results for people and for the planet. Customers get the benefits of health-enhancing ingredients. Farmers get to extract more value from their crop. The world’s climate benefits from reduced emissions and less pressure on agricultural land.

But this is just the start. The next step is to set up a biorefinery to break down coffee to its constituent molecules. As Juan puts it, they’ve gone from “just taking what is there” to “mixing it up to create new stuff depending on what we need”. “It’s new frontiers we’re exploring,” he says. They’re keeping the details close to their chests (patents have been filed) but they’re proud to say that their processes use no chemical solvents, and they even recycle CO2. Eventually they want to have a decentralised network of biorefineries in different regions, ready to process coffee waste wherever it is found.

“Our aim is to get the most value out of a kilo of coffee, wherever it comes from”

JUAN MEDINA

Putting power in the hands of farmers is a particularly important aim for Kaffe Bueno – and one they hope to invest in directly. “One of our ambitions is to teach the farmers how to use their own waste,” says Camilo. “That it has the potential to be so much more.” This will require not just expertise but also support with technology and infrastructure. Juan says: ”The end goal is that it doesn’t matter if the coffee comes from waste or not. Our aim is to get the most value out of a kilo of coffee, wherever it comes from.”

Kaffe Bueno aren’t expecting to reinvent the entire coffee industry alone, but they’re determined to make an impact. “We recognise that the system could be better,” says Juan. “It’s not going to improve in a year, it’s a generational change.”

The alternative is for the coffee industry to continue on its current path, trying to feed a growing population while the land suitable for cultivating coffee shrinks due to climate change. Meanwhile young people in countries like Colombia are turning their backs on farming because they can’t make a living out of it. This, Juan warns, “could be a tragic scenario”.

Most people have probably never thought about coffee the way Kaffe Bueno’s founders do – at least not yet. Alejandro nods. “We think about coffee a lot.”

And now…

  • Check out Nivea’s Coffee to Care range, containing Kaffe Bueno’s upcycled coffee oil (only available in Germany!)
  • Discover Pasion’s sustainable tanning products made using Kaffe Bueno’s oil
  • UpCircle has a wide range of sustainable and vegan beauty products, including ones containing Kaffe Bueno’s ingredients
  • Waste less food in your own home with these tips from Love Food Hate Waste
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