The Corner Store Network was formally established in 2017, but in a sense its genesis really began over 30 years ago when Alice and Jake’s journey of social activism started after being born to parents with social justice at the heart of everything they do.
We grew up literally on the shoulders of our dad, Andrew and in the arms of our mum, Kathy, at demonstrations and protests with a social cause. Such issues as addressing homelessness in Melbourne, saving Albert Park from becoming a Formula 1 track, stopping the Jabiluka uranium mine, opposing the Iraq war and calling for a treaty for First Nations People defined our understanding of justice and standing up for what is right in the world.
Andrew, our dad and mentor, is one of Australia’s leading social entrepreneurs, founding organisations such as Infoxchange and xpand Foundation. He is a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his outstanding service to the community, including his innovative approach to strengthening communities using information communication technology as the primary tool to create positive social change. Andrew has been working with communities in Timor-Leste since 2003, establishing and supporting a number of social enterprises like InfoTimor (providing national ICT services) and WithOneSeed (Gold Standard verified carbon community forestry.)
Since that first year, we’ve imported and roasted 82,000kg of coffee from Ermera, Timor-Leste.
In 2012 Andrew met Brett Inder of Tradewinds, by chance in the departure lounge of the Dili International Airport, on their way back from Timor-Leste. Brett, an academic, and Andrew, an entrepreneur, discussed their interest in setting up a coffee enterprise. Brett was sourcing a small amount of green coffee beans through an organisation called Alter Trade Timor and shipping it to Australia. With Andrew’s strong links to Timor-Leste through other social initiatives and Brett looking for a collaboration with like-minded people, the synergy was clear.
So we bought a manual popcorn popper on eBay and began roasting coffee beans in our backyard, on the barbeque, hand cranking the vessel for 25 minutes to produce around 100gm of roasted coffee. Corner Store Coffee (then WithOneBean) was created and we quickly realized we had to get serious equipment if this was going to take off!
We found a second hand 15 kg coffee roaster on the northern NSW coast, attached a trailer and drove up to buy it. We set up in Tradewinds warehouse in Clayton, and that year, roasted half a tonne of green beans. If you were one of the ‘lucky’ people to have tried one of those early bags of coffee, you would keenly appreciate just how far we have come!
Since that first year, we’ve imported and roasted 82,000kg of coffee from Ermera, Timor-Leste. In line with our desire to tread lightly on the planet, we plant a tree through the WithOneSeed Community Forestry program for every kilo of coffee roasted at the Corner Store Roastery. There is a really lovely circular synergy for Timorese coffee farmers on one side of the country to be supporting tree farmers on the other side of the country.
Coffee is the second biggest export out of Timor-Leste after oil. With the world moving away from oil, the Timor coffee industry needs support more than ever to grow, so that the 19% of Timorese households who currently get their income from coffee can be secured an ongoing income.
In keeping with our desire to assist subsistence coffee farmers by paying well above fair trade prices, we realised that we needed to ensure that the end product is of high quality, with a low environmental impact. It was all well and good to produce an ethically transparent product, however if it didn’t taste good, people would buy it once and never come back. We invested in a better quality roaster – both the machine and the training of the person doing the roasting. It’s paid off, in 2018, Jake roasted us to both a silver and bronze medal in the Golden Bean – Australia and New Zealand’s coffee roasting competition, and in 2020 a bronze medal in the Australian International Coffee Awards. This has proved our model – that you can produce to the highest quality whilst maintaining people and planet at the forefront of your focus.
The Corner Store Preservery came to life through Alice and Kathy’s passion for food given its ability to bring people together from all walks of life and all cultures. Sharing food with people can bridge gaps and allows us all to learn a little more about someone else’s story. Eating together may be an ordinary and everyday act, but the intimacy of sharing a table is one that has provided us the privilege of meeting people from all over the world and given us an insight into other people’s lives and circumstances.
Working and staying in the coffee growing regions of Timor, we were noticing the poor diets. As outsiders, it’s sometimes difficult to see that food, or lack of food, is such a big problem, because food at many meal times had been abundant, with meat, lots of vegetables and fruit on the table. But we were also seeing that we were being served the best spread and if we wandered out into the kitchen, the rest of the family weren’t eating what we were.
We also saw a distinct lack of variety being consumed and at certain times of the year, an infamous hungry season, ‘tempu hamlala’ as known to the locals, where food is so scarce that people are lucky to have one meal a day. On the flip, the abundant season has the opposite problem, with 40% of food being wasted across the country. It seemed obvious, let’s just preserve the food in the abundant season so that it is available in the hungry season.
And so the Corner Store Preservery was established. We developed a prototype preserving hub in a shipping container, fitted out with commercial grade kitchen and preserving equipment. The model means these hubs can be easily made available to communities where women are trained in preservation techniques. Farmers join a cooperative, bring their produce to the preserving hubs and are paid a fair price.
The produce is preserved through various techniques like bottling, pickling and drying, and made available to the communities year round, with a focus on the hungry season.
While the model was conceived in a Timor-Leste context, we knew that food insecurity wasn’t just a problem pertinent to developing countries. On any given day, 1 million Australians are food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Combine that with 40% of food wasted annually in Australia and we see the same problems in our own backyard.
During her cheffing apprenticeship, Alice was continually astounded by the waste in some of Melbourne’s top restaurants. From off-cuts and peels, to stale bread and slightly limp vegetables being tossed into the bin with little thought to the energy and water inputs to grow those carrots or strawberries. Alice would often empty black garbage bag after black garbage bag into the dumpster out the back, no separating of compost, no recycling – just land-fill, all of it.
The Melbourne model differs slightly in that it is a volunteer program. Local residents contact us when they have more produce than they can consume, we harvest, prune, tidy up and return the produce to our preservery in Oakleigh where we preserve it at voluntary community preserving days. The finished product is split, some going back to the grower, some being sold to keep the program going, and the remainder going to local food relief agencies.
Kathy runs the Melbourne hub, and since January 2019, her team has saved over 6 tonne of food from going to waste, and turned the produce into delicious preserves, chutneys, jams, cordials and relishes. We have around 100 volunteers who come to our Melbourne hub every Wednesday and Thursday to preserve in sessions that they like to call ‘chop and chats.’
When we began this program, we thought that it’s primary purpose would be about reducing food waste and increasing food preservation, but it’s become clear that it’s so much more than that. It’s building engaged and connected communities, and networks of local people working together. Our volunteers are from all walks of life – didn’t know one another when they started and may never have met had they not been around a kitchen bench chopping cucumbers or apricots together.
We firmly believe that it’s the simple actions, by many people that create the biggest impact. At The Corner Store Network, we are all about collaboration, and working alongside people, growing community and giving people an opportunity to get involved. We witness every time we are fortunate enough to travel to Timor-Leste, that community and family is so strong and so rich. We can learn so much from the Timorese about how to come together and not just shut ourselves away.
Trees, ethical trade, transparent supply chains, food – all of our work ties to environmental, economic and food justice and whilst we are simply roasting coffee, planting trees, and making preserves, we are building a movement of people willing to invest with equality in everything they do.
Like many good things, The Corner Store Network story started by chance. And whilst we operate in a fluid and agile way, chance doesn’t determine our direction. The Corner Store Network is as simple as the coffee you drink or the jam you spread on your toast in the morning. The Corner Store Network is also as simple as improving the lives of subsistence communities in Timor-Leste, reducing food waste in Australian communities, building engaged, resilient local communities, and real action on climate change.
We believe in people and planet before profit. If as an organisation, we can leave the world slightly better than when we came into it, that will be success.
We’re preserving the future, and leaving no-one behind.