Our morning coffee routines have to an extent come to symbolise our personal politics. From the cup you use, to the certifications your beans carry and the type of milk you add, a coffee can both force us to consider the environmental impacts of our choices and show others where we stand.
Australian startup Kua Coffee is helping some of the country's most progressive businesses reduce their impact by delivering a 'world positive', closed-loop coffee service. World positive businesses put social and environmental benefits before profits. At Kua, this means:
All coffee is ethically sourced from small-holder farming families at 15 per cent above UTZ certified prices.
Coffee is delivered and collected for composting in reusable drums to eliminate packaging and product waste.
100 per cent of profits go towards improving climate resilience in Uganda’s Mount Elgon where the coffee is sourced.
We sat down with Kua's Managing Director Darcy Small to talk about how the company grew from a share house project to one of Australia’s leading circular coffee solutions.
"My name is Darcy Small. I am a cofounder of Kua and look after our strategic direction and finances. Aside from drinking Kua's delicious coffee every morning, I play a supporting role within our team for projects relating to growth. Currently, I am focussed on raising funds to enable Kua to take on new clients, replicate in Melbourne and redesign its closed-loop packaging.
Kua is a social enterprise that does world positive coffee for workplaces. Our fortnightly specialty coffee subscription is tailored to progressive Australian workplaces of 100-pus employees. We do everything that an everyday coffee provider does — machines and servicing, baristas and tea — without the footprint. This means three things:
Coffee is ethically sourced, direct from farming families
Coffee is delivered in reusable drums and all coffee grounds are collected for reuse in local community gardens.
Profits support farmers in regenerating over-cultivated land, offsetting the company's carbon footprint in the process."
"Kua's vision — describing a future world and culture Kua works to create — is 'happy days'. We're working towards happy days for our immediate stakeholders, future generations and those experiencing the mounting injustices of climate change. Circularity is a central pillar of this vision. It represents a business model that moves away from traditional extractive supply chains and instead prioritises opportunities to generate a net-positive impact on people and the planet. We believe this should be the new normal.
"Every year, Australian’s brew six billion cups of coffee. Single-use cups, bags and pods characterise this morning ritual, but the coffee itself is often overlooked; 93 per cent ends up in landfill. This is crazy considering spent coffee grounds are rich in natural oils, antioxidants and nitrogen, components of value to energy, health and food industries."
"Kua delivers, and collects, coffee from consumers in reusable drums, eliminating waste. Every drum saves 500 single-use bags from landfill and enables 100 per cent of Kua's waste coffee to be collected for local repurposing with partners like Raise The Bar, IndigiGrow and Randwick Sustainability Hub."
Kua's business model is circular by design. For us, “waste” is simply another product we’re responsible for. We have customers that consume fresh coffee and customers that consume spent coffee, and the user experience of these two product streams are mirrored. Coffee is delivered and collected by the same driver and all our customers - whether brewing lattes or mixing soil conditioner - are given the same degree of love and attention. Others in the coffee industry tend to separate their fresh and spent streams, often engaging a third-party to manage the waste side of their operations.
"Kua piloted this model with a number of values-aligned workplaces to understand the user experience of closed-loop coffee versus traditional alternatives. To facilitate a behavioural change in the workplace, we want the experience to be an improvement before we start talking about environmental benefits. With regular customer feedback, we have iterated our packaging drums — the most important touchpoint — three times since launching in 2019.
Being able to operate with agility is crucial. As a startup, this came naturally, but we approach our strategy meetings with a very open mind and allow the customer to guide our product development as much as possible. We secured an Environmental Innovation grant from the City of Sydney which allowed us to invest in closed-loop assets for up to five tonnes of coffee. We have just engaged an industrial design firm to produce our next iteration of drums for 20 tonnes and over.
Kua has fifteen business functions, ranging from finance to internal systems to user experience to wellbeing. One of these is ‘waste’. The owner of the waste function is responsible for bringing new projects to strategy meetings, shouting if the waste side of our operations are neglected and managing the day-to-day experience of our reuse partners. When others in the coffee industry adopt a similar model, we’d suggest that internal operational structures shift to recognise waste collection as a core business activity, rather than a sustainability add-on.
As one of the ‘first movers’ in this space, Kua promotes the circular elements of its business model as a unique selling point in sales meetings and tenders. This point of difference helps us to acquire partnerships that might otherwise be won by more established coffee providers.
The office manager is also a gate-opener for Kua. Often, this role is KPI-d to efficiency, in terms of cleanliness, cost and time, so asking them to start recovering a new waste stream can take a bit of convincing. We tend to achieve this by securing buy-in from upper management and demonstrating how a shift to the circular economy aligns with workplace ESG commitments.
We view others operating in the same space as collaborators, not competitors. Prior to engaging our industrial design agency for the next iteration of canisters, we reached out to roasters for advice and partnership opportunities. When servicing clients in Melbourne, we engage Reground to manage our waste streams. Being transparent about our purpose and progress has enabled others to help us on the journey."
"Short term, we want to maintain a scalable system where over 85 per cent of our coffee grounds are being reused. We've set up an inventory management system to track waste collected from every single client, per canister. Beyond ourselves, we want to help make closed-loop coffee the new normal. In the medium term, this means launching in a new city and releasing purpose-built canisters. Longer term, we want to inspire one of the big roasters to copy us.
For every kilogram of spent coffee grounds diverted from landfill, 0.6kg CO2-e is avoided. The model also reduces packaging cost over a canister’s lifetime and saves labour costs in the roastery via a simplified packing process.
In 2019, six university students launched Kua from their share house. We were inspired by the idea of a world positive business model, but weren’t necessarily expecting it to take off. Three years later, we’re servicing clients like PwC, Canva, Aesop and WWF and operating at financial sustainability.
Kua started out as 'Australia's charitable coffee company, where all profits are reinvested in climate resilience projects where our coffee is grown'. We still do this, but our workplace partners find circularity a far more compelling reason to switch to Kua. Our Head of Sales now confidently walks into meetings with a coffee drum tucked under her arm: this is who we are."
“Our advice for other businesses is:
Be agile. Shift to circularity in stages and be guided by customer feedback.
Be genuine. Circularity cannot be an isolated initiative of the sustainability department. Operations, finance and management must be bought in and willing to accept there might be short-term losses, economic or environmental, in pursuit of the longer-term objective.
Be persistent. Single-use is a beautiful experience because the systems and mindset supporting it have been built up over decades. Circularity is new. It may start out clunky. Help your clients understand why you’ve made the shift and be confident that in the not-too-distant future, it will be the superior option.