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Keba Konte’s Caffeinated Revolution

The coffee industry can be a hotbed of exploitation and exclusion. Red Bay Coffee is pushing for change

Man wearing cap standing in front of a coffee roaster, with bags of beans stacked on shelves in the background.

One of the walls at Red Bay Coffee headquarters is taken up by a huge living sculpture of Africa, all sorts of plants dangling from the continent’s outline. The space, on a quiet block in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, is both coffee shop and roastery. The hum of machines joins with the buzz of conversation as the space fills up and a line winds out the door. This isn’t a cafe, so much as a community hub for the neighborhood. That’s fitting, since Red Bay isn’t an ordinary coffee company.

Started in 2014 by Oakland artist and entrepreneur Keba Konte, Red Bay is in many ways a response to the failings of third-wave coffee culture, which saw an increased emphasis on the quality of coffee and its sourcing, but resulted in mostly white-owned cafes and often-underpaid employees. Konte’s mission is to adjust how coffee is treated every step of the way. He wants more demand for high-quality coffee in the countries where it’s produced, so farmers depend less on exploitative overseas markets. He wants customers who haven’t felt comfortable dipping their toes into the world of fancy coffee to have a place to ask questions and sip in peace. He wants to create a home behind the counter, where queer folk, people of color, and those who have been incarcerated can learn a skill and make a meaningful income.

If that sounds like a lot for one coffee company to tackle, that’s because it is. But as Red Bay quickly grows, Konte is well on his way to realizing this vision, setting a new standard for the coffee industry. Red Bay is the product of Konte’s ideas about how the world of coffee could be. So when I started thinking about the future of food, and of the restaurant industry, Konte was the first person I called.

Eater: What are the weaknesses and the biggest issues that you’re seeing right now in your industry?

Keba Konte: The industry still lacks Black leadership at the highest levels. At a Peet’s, at a Starbucks, and even some of these other third-wave roasteries and companies, you’ll see more and more Black and brown baristas: The front line almost feels like it’s getting a little bit more integrated. And we’re still talking about integration. But when you look past the veil at the leadership roles at most of these coffee companies, we’re still looking at mostly white men who are the decision-makers, who are driving the culture at these places. That’s a problem.

There’s still a lot of exploitation that happens at the farm level. That’s probably the single biggest challenge and weakness of this entire industry. The people who are doing by far the most labor-intensive portion of the entire supply chain are at origin, and they’re getting the smallest piece of the pie in terms of compensation and how the dollar is divided up. The level of exploitation and poverty that exists for the farmers and producers is a tragedy.

Dark wood wall with a cutout of Africa. The cutout is filled with greenery.
Black bags of Red Bay Coffee lined up on shelves.

When you look at these issues from the origin through production to the baristas, where and how do you see Red Bay and yourself intervening?

It doesn’t stop at the barista. It starts, obviously, at the farm and all the way through the value stream, from the importer to the exporter to the local trading houses to the individual roasters to the QC [quality control] and production and the marketing and then, the barista. After that, it is the spaces: From the coffeehouses to the streets and the consumer. I make that distinction because a couple of years back in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, they called the police on these two [Black] guys who were just there for a meeting.

Where we intervene — starting at the very end — is creating spaces that are flipping the script by making our spaces unapologetically welcoming to Black and brown people: By putting Africa on the wall, by not exploiting our farmers with pictures of them smiling with sweat and dirty hands that they’re not directly benefiting from. We are hiring some of these underrepresented and underestimated communities at every level of production. That includes roasters.

And we’re not just talking about race. Race is definitely one major component, but we’re talking about gender, we’re talking about LGBTQ people, we’re talking about disabled folks, we’re talking about the formerly incarcerated. We are very intentional about creating opportunities for folks with unnecessary barriers to entry into the industry. Sometimes, those barriers are people not getting promoted from barista to a trainer to a manager. Sometimes, those barriers are not getting hired in the first place. They might be in a wheelchair or have a police record and have to check that box on the application: Have you been convicted of a felony? Sometimes, the barrier is none of those things; it’s just that when they walk into these spaces, it doesn’t feel welcoming.

Us breaking down these barriers is incentivizing our farmers for quality and paying them even more than fair-trade rates. It’s meeting people where they are with their coffee education. We use our platform to let Black people know, to let African Americans know that coffee came from Africa and that this is our heritage. That is our inheritance. Since we’ve been under the Red Bay brand for 6 ½ years, we’ve seen an emergence of a Black coffee movement. There are coffee shops opening up that are not just owned by Black people, but are also unapologetic about claiming their culture and flexing it within the coffee space.

So what should the coffee industry look like in 2025? And what would it actually take to get there?

Well, it is going to take a struggle. These things don’t just happen by themselves. Let me first address our crystal ball and [the idea of] looking into the future: We’re going to have to think about wages. We’ve been paying a minimum of $15 per hour as our starting wage for our employees, baristas, and production-line crew, ever since the minimum wage was $10. Now that the minimum wage has caught up to what we have been paying for the last six years — and we’ve made incremental increases there — we’re trying to raise the bar again. We would like to continue to push the envelope in terms of wages.

I would like to think that in five years’ time, there will be a growth in the consumption of coffee in origin countries around the world: That means more coffee shops, coffee culture, and coffee business in countries like Kenya, Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. What that does is drive the price up, and it makes those coffee producers less dependent on exporting to Europe, America, and Japan. We really have to get that right.

Right now, farmers are being paid at almost an all-time low. The commodity price is under $1 for one pound of coffee. It’s hard to explain how much work goes into processing one pound of coffee, and the farmer, the producer, and the collective has to share that dollar.

The Black Lives Matter movement has hit a chord that is reverberating globally. This is not just a blip; this will continue. Those changes are starting to impact corporate movements, decisions, and structures. The first layer is more surface-level talk and brown-washing, if you will. [Corporations are] reaching out to companies like Red Bay to become the face of a campaign or an ad. We’re participating in some of these campaigns. There are also other initiatives where they’re actually starting to really consider Black businesses as vendors. So now, we’re getting opportunities from [some of the traditional gatekeepers] to become coffee providers — Good Eggs, Thrive, Target. I think if they’re reaching out to us, they’re reaching out to others, as well.

Man standing, holding a small cup to his mouth. He’s standing next to a table that holds dozens of small cups.

Even before this last wave, Starbucks hired a chief operating officer who is a Black woman. You’re seeing more infiltration on the upper corporate level. That’s the more critical part of the diversity piece. I think that will continue to happen, and it will happen because people are pushing for it — not just Black people, but the mainstream of America are pushing for some of these changes.

Do you see space for there to be a major change in how a wider swath of people is interacting with coffee?

What comes to mind is whenever you have Black people taking over in an industry, or really influencing that industry, Black people have this certain sort of swag, a certain way of doing things and including different flavors. So many things in this industry — for example, tasting notes on a coffee or a wine — are so subjective and they’re so culturally based.

When you’re trying to taste and identify a flavor, all you have is the references from your own personal experience. We’ve had experiences in the cupping lab when we’re tasting coffee and — one example, we had this Navajo brother, Kelvin, and when we were talking about tasting notes, he started talking about saddle leather and the morning smell of riding a horse through a forest, and roasted yams. People will bring their life experience and it’s what you’re missing when you don’t have that diversity of culture and cultural references.

But who knows? We’ve been trying to do the best we can — we introduced a candied yam latte a couple of years ago that Jessica helped create. We are working on a cocoa butter product right now. We’ve been doing a charcoal black latte. We’ve got a couple more things in the pipeline with traditional African spices. I’m not sure what everyone else is planning, but I know they’re going to bring it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.