Road to recovery: The coffee industry’s role in bushfire relief

coffee bushfire relief

After Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season, small businesses, the coffee community, and the government are banding together to rebuild.

New Year’s Eve is the biggest widespread annual celebration of the year, but for many Australians the build-up to 31 December 2019 will be remembered in a different light.

As the new decade approached, the spectre of an unprecedented bushfire season loomed over the nation, leading to a raging debate on whether many festivities should even proceed.

Fast-forward to the end of February and research published in the journal Nature Climate Change stated 21 per cent of Australia’s mainland forests, totalling more than 18 million hectares, had burned.

For many cafés and small businesses, Australia’s worst bushfire season in recent memory has been devastating. Despite the destruction, the road to recovery has begun, and locals are working with authorities to restimulate economies and communities.

“Governments traditionally have taken a top-down approach to rebuilding, but the outcome of events like Black Saturday show that while bottom-up approach may take longer, the end results will be stronger,” says Sharon Raguse, Manager of Economic Recovery, East Gippsland Shire Council.

coffee bushfire relief
Karen Lott, Owner of Sprout Eden, has created a community pot to support victims.

“One strategy we are undertaking is to ensure local businesses and local suppliers are being used for recovery, whether it’s consulting, business coaching, procurement of contracts, traffic management, or anything else. That way the business stays within the community.”

On a national scale, the full extent of the destruction is immeasurable. To date, 34 people have died, countless animals have been killed, and the damage toll stands in the billions of dollars.

“I daresay that most of these businesses have 60 to 100 per cent of their summer income impacted. From Cape Conran all the way up to Eden, New South Wales businesses rely on the nature-based, tourism market,” Sharon says.

“We’re using this as an opportunity for people to rethink their business models and diversify their income-stream. That way their businesses will be more sustainable in the future, as they will be able to even out the seasonal peaks and troughs to become more resilient.”

For people at ground zero, homes, businesses, and in some cases, their lives were under immediate threat. Karen Lott, Owner of Spout Eden, a café and local produce store in Eden NSW, was forced to sleep in the flat above her café as her house was at risk.

“It was apocalyptic – it felt surreal. The sky was pitch black at 2pm in the afternoon. All you could see were emergency vehicles and people wearing masks. Some people chose to camp in their cars by the water, but they were ordered to leave there as well,” Karen says.

Sprout Café, which serves Ona Coffee, has acted as a hub for emergency service workers in the area. Among other initiatives, the café created a community pot where contributions are put towards providing free coffee to fire-affected individuals.

“Our roaster, Ona Coffee, has been extremely supportive of local businesses. Sasa Sestic and his team personally visited us, they gave us credit to purchase coffee, and contributed a very generous amount to our community pot,” she says.

“Another great initiative has been signing up for ‘It’s My Shout’. You can register products online and people can donate to pay them forward. I’ve got coffee registered at $5 and meals for $20. I’ve been forward-paying all of these purchases, so the funds stay within the community.”

coffee bushfire relief
John White, Mayor of East Gippsland Shire, inspects the damage at Sarsfield.

One of the major disruptions to tourism and businesses over the period has been the profound damage to infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, which has limited the amount of traffic coming through.

“When the fires came into the area, they closed the highway for two months on the dot. There was no-one coming in or out. It’s reopened now and it’s quieter than normal, but it’s picking up – anything is better than nothing,” says Gary Hartas, Owner of Gingers Creek Bush Resort.

With tourism and business dashed, many café owners and other small businesses have been overwhelmed by the generosity of their local communities and the wider coffee industry.

“My coffee roaster, Holy Goat Coffee, gave me two boxes of coffee. I’ve had loads of help like that, people donating things which has allowed me to remain on my feet,” Gary says.

“If I didn’t have loyal local customers and the team from Holy Goat Coffee who were willing to support me, I would have been in danger of closing down.”

Australia’s coffee industry has been instrumental in aiding relief efforts and is responsible for countless donations. Cafés and roasters of all sizes have contributed to fundraisers and initiatives over the summer months.

“St Ali immediately pledged $1 for every coffee sold in the week following the worst of the fires, raising over $18,000. We also set up a raffle, giving away an evening for 10 people in our café with food and drink provided, raising an addition $3000,” says Michael Cameron, Communications Manager at St Ali.

“We were involved in a weekend relief concert providing coffee through our coffee cart business and have raised additional funds through a special coffee release gifted to us by producer Aida Batlle for this specific purpose. We’ve also sent coffee and supplies to affected areas like Mallacoota Beach.”

Veneziano took a similar approach. It also pledged $1 per coffee and 20 per cent of retail sales from 4 to 12 January, raising $13,156, and organised other fundraiser events to boost donations.

Many other roasters and cafés around the country have also marshalled relief efforts and donations. Industry Beans donated 10 per cent of all coffee sales towards bushfire relief in January and Everyday Coffee took the unique approach of creating a Bushfire Relief espresso blend, with 100 per cent of sales donated.

“It was truly encouraging to see so many people involved in the coffee industry jump into action to help. There was a groundswell of support for those impacted by the bushfires. It definitely made us feel proud to be involved with this industry,” Michael says.

From the government’s perspective, the situation has been extremely challenging, but options for emergency funding have been rolled out across the country.

To aid impacted businesses financially, the Federal Government announced top-up grants of up to $50,000 tax-free and low-interest loans of up to $500,000 for businesses that have lost significant assets or had a major reduction of revenue.

Businesses that apply for 10-year loans of up to $500,000 aren’t required to pay interest for the first two years and following that period will pay a small figure, 0.8 per cent interest, for the remainder of the loan’s life.

Under the Disaster Recovery Payment scheme, individuals and families in need of funding are also eligible for a one-off payment of $1000.

For the East Gippsland Shire Council, the bushfires follow three years of drought. Given the damage successive environmental disasters had caused, the council took a decisive and quick approach to its recovery strategy.

“We were very quick to put a survey into the field to understand what the immediate impacts were. The data we gained has been invaluable in informing our decisions. We have a real desire to ensure the community’s needs are being placed at the centre of the rebuild,” East Gippsland Shire Council’s Sharon says.

A strategy has been to work with various agencies to construct four working groups focused on four key pillars: economic recovery, natural environment, build environment, and social environment.

While the coffee industry and government are doing their part to assist, picking up the pieces of the nation’s most devastating bushfire season on record will undoubtably take time.

“We can’t move quickly enough to explore every lever to assist in the short to medium term. The next three months are critical and there’s a real sense of urgency around rebuilding,” Sharon says.

“Ultimately, we want to look at the bigger picture to ensure that in five or 10 years, we are in a stronger position than where we started.”

This article appears in the April 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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