The Corner Store Network was formally established in 2017 by siblings Alice and Jake Mahar, but its genesis began over 30 years ago with their introduction to social activism. The duo, along with their sister Jess, grew up on the shoulders of their parents, Andrew and Kathy, at demonstrations and protests around 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. Each one further cemented their understanding of justice and the need to stand up for what is right in the world.

The connection to Timor-Leste

Father and mentor, Andrew, is one of Australia’s leading social entrepreneurs, being awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his outstanding service to social justice in Australia and Timor-Leste. In 2003 Andrew, who was running Infoxchange at the time, was asked by then-Victorian Premier Steve Bracks to visit Timor-Leste and review the technology set up at the Dili Institute of Technology (DIT). In typical Andrew style, he and a couple of colleagues fixed many of the problems during their visit. However, Andrew realised there was no one on the ground at the institute who had the skills to troubleshoot problems that would inevitably arise, as they do with all things computers and internet! 

He came up with the concept to bring Timorese students from DIT to Australia and train them in information and communications technology (ICT) over the course of six months. The initiative was a success, and soon after Andrew and the Timorese students who had been studying in Australia, set up a social enterprise called InfoTimor which sent computers donated in Australia to Timor-Leste to be refurbished and sold nationally. With their newfound ICT skills, graduates of the training program were able to perform maintenance on these computers, enabling the country’s ICT industry to grow. Little did Andrew know it at the time, but his journey with creating positive change in Timor-Leste had just begun.

Timor coffee enters the picture

In 2012, while waiting in the departure lounge of the Dili International Airport, Andrew had a chance encounter with Brett Inder of Tradewinds. Brett, an academic, had been sourcing a small amount of green coffee beans through Alter Trade Timor, the only Timorese led coffee operation, and importing it to Australia. He was interested in expanding the coffee enterprise to assist the Timorese coffee industry, and Andrew, an entrepreneur with strong links to Timor-Leste, was the perfect match. The synergy between the two was strong and not long after WithOneBean was born.

The early days of WithOneBean

Andrew bought a manual popcorn popper on eBay and began roasting Timor coffee beans with Alice in the backyard. Using the barbecue, they would hand crank the vessel for 25 minutes to produce around 100gm of roasted coffee. They knew they would need some more serious gear if the operation were to take off so after finding a second hand 15kg coffee roaster on the northern NSW coast online, they attached a trailer and drove up to buy it. That first year, WithOneBean moved from the family garage to a warehouse in Clayton and half a tonne of green bean was roasted. If you were around for those early bags of coffee you would keenly appreciate how far the organisation has come!

Recruiting the family

It was around the time of buying the coffee roaster that Jake’s curiosity was triggered. Interested in a new challenge, he began roasting Timor coffee after work from the warehouse three nights a week. In between roasting experiments and playing guitar, he (like many millennials!) turned to Youtube to properly learn the ropes, and after much trial and error was confident he had mastered the basics. 

Some six months on, after a particularly trying day in his IT job where he’d been tasked with fixing a computer mouse that turned out to be backwards rather than broken, Jake decided to leave his job to pursue a full time career as a coffee roaster. 

Growing the coffee arm, ethically

With his background in social activism, Andrew was determined to make WithOneBean an enterprise that put planet and people first. Early on the decision was made to plant a tree for every kilo roasted through the WithOneSeed community forestry initiative, also founded by Andrew. It was, and remains to this day, a lovely circular model where coffee farmers on one side of the country support tree farmers on the other side. 

In keeping with a desire to pay subsistence farmers well above Fairtrade coffee prices, it was imperative to ensure the end product was of a high quality and great taste so that customers would keep coming back. Upon moving to a bigger warehouse in Oakleigh, the roaster was upgraded and on the new machine Jake won both a silver and bronze medal in the Golden Bean – Australia and New Zealand’s 2018 coffee roasting competition. This proved the mission, that they could produce coffee of the highest quality, whilst having positive impacts on both people and planet. And with those accolades under its belt, WithOneBean was ready to take its next big step.

Preserving joins the mix

Since those early days in the garage, Andrew had been chipping away at Alice, floating the idea of running the coffee enterprise together. Alice had completed a chef apprenticeship but was alarmed by the amount of food waste she saw working in commercial kitchens. From offcuts and peels, to stale bread and slightly limp vegetables, she witnessed the lot of it being tossed into the bin with little thought to the energy and water inputs to grow that produce. Alice would often empty black garbage bag after black garbage bag into the dumpster out the back, no separating of compost, no recycling – just landfill, all of it.

Disheartened and unsure what to do next, she started going on trips to the coffee growing regions of Timor-Leste with Andrew. Eating may be an everyday act, but sharing food with families can bridge gaps and teach you about someone else’s life and circumstances. As outsiders, Andrew and Alice were treated to an abundance of food comprising the best spread full of meat, vegetables and fruit, but upon wandering into the kitchen, it was clear that the rest of the family weren’t eating the same. Alice observed a distinct lack of variety being consumed, and, by talking to local women, learnt about the dual issues of food waste and food insecurity faced by many families. In the wet season, there was often an abundance of fresh produce but without appropriate storage or access to markets, around 40% would go to waste. During the dry season, the opposite occurred where little food could be grown and families would be lucky to eat one meal a day. This was known by locals as ‘tempu hamlala’; in English, the hungry season.

It was through these chats around kitchen benches that Alice came up with the idea to solve both problems through preservation, a practice that was ingrained in Timorese history but had been lost during the Indonesian occupation. Her plan was simple: preserve food when its abundant so that it’s available in the hungry season.

Corner Store Network is born!

With the coffee arm gaining momentum under Jake’s watch, and seed funding to launch Alice’s preserving kitchen, WithOneBean was relaunched as Corner Store Network - a social enterprise coffee roastery and food preservery putting people and planet first. While the preserving model was conceived in a Timor-Leste context, Alice began understanding that food waste and food insecurity were not just problems pertinent to developing countries. 

On any given day, one million Australians are food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Combine that with the 40% of food wasted annually on our soil and we see the same problems faced by Timorese in our own backyard. With that in mind, a prototype preserving hub in a shipping container was developed, fit out with a commercial grade kitchen and preserving equipment. This is where Kathy (Andrew’s wife and Alice and Jake’s mum) joined the picture.

Fostering a community around food

With a background in primary education (teaching biodiversity and food systems) and her experience in establishing school kitchen gardens, Kathy was the perfect person to help Alice bring the preserving initiative to life. Locals with over producing gardens would donate fruit, vegetables and herbs which were then preserved in weekly sessions by a team of volunteers. A portion of each batch went back to the grower, another sold to keep the initiative running and the remainder sent to local food relief agencies to be distributed to those in need. 

Since its inception in 2019, the preserving initiative has saved over 30 tonnes of food! While the goal was always about reducing food waste, the initiative has become so much more than that. It continues to build engaged communities of people from all different walks of life who connect over food and the opportunity to make a difference. Our HQ comes alive on these preserving days, buzzing with people yarning about their families, book clubs and local matters as they chop cucumbers and stir pots of jam. There are now over 80 volunteers who participate in preserving sessions, which they have fondly coined ‘chop and chat’!

Over the Timor Sea

Over the last couple of years, Alice and Andrew worked with their Timorese colleagues to set up the preserving hub in Dili. Covid lockdowns meant they weren’t able to assist in person, but the team on the ground worked hard to construct and start operating the hub. Having to persevere with limited in-person assistance turned out to be a silver lining in a difficult period because the hub, operated by local women Dina and Enny, is now completely locally managed and run by the community, for the community.

Rather than accepting donations, produce is either grown on-site or sourced from local farmers to minimise their wastage and increase their livelihoods. Produce is preserved using various techniques like pickling, bottling and drying, and made available to the community year round, with a focus on the hungry season. The products are also quite different to what is preserved in Melbourne - pickled tomatoes, dried pineapple, lemongrass tea and coconut oil to name a few - and the actual preservation is done by a team of local women staff, offering meaningful employment, training and skill-building opportunities. These small differences show how the hub concept can be adapted for local scenarios.

Extending the family

At The Corner Store Network, we are all about collaboration, working alongside people, growing community and giving people an opportunity to get involved. Every time we are fortunate to travel to Timor-Leste, we witness the strong and rich family and community ties. We can learn so much from the Timorese about how to come together and not shut ourselves away. On our own soil, we are building a movement of people willing to invest with equality in everything they do. Alongside our volunteers, Corner Store Network now comprises a team of eight: Daiki is head roaster, Michelle manages marketing and communications, Issy is a barista and cafe all-rounder and Felicity now runs the preserving sessions. Fully incorporated, it also has a board of management, Tracey (Chairperson), Brett (Treasurer), Amodha and Natalie.

Like many good things, the Corner Store Network story started by chance. That said, chance doesn’t determine the social enterprise’s direction. With the help of the growing team, Jake and Alice are continuing in their parent’s footsteps, using coffee and preserves as a vehicle to make real environmental and social change. Importantly, they continue to set an example for other businesses, demonstrating that anyone can produce quality products that not only tread lightly, but have positive impacts on both people and planet. 

Because it’s the simple actions, taken by many people, that create the biggest impact.