Networking over coffee

Irvine-based Axiom Coffee Ventures is more than just coffee beans.

Founders Stephan Erkelens and Glenn Parrish started the company two years ago with the goal of changing the lives of 1 million small-farm coffee growers in Central and South America.

"You've got this massive industry, massive world thirst for it, and millions and millions of farmers in the value chain," said Parrish, who was born and raised in Newport Beach and graduated from Corona del Mar High School. "So if you tip this one, you change a lot of people's lives."

Technically, Axiom doesn't sell coffee — or coffee beans for that matter. The company also does not raise money or give handouts to the farmers, although it does have a nonprofit arm that gives assistance for certain causes. Instead, it connects big-name coffee roasters such as Brothers Coffee of Agora Hills, Mountanos Brothers of San Francisco, Crimson Cup of Ohio and Hope Coffee of Texas with small coffee farmers in those regions.

Axiom has a long path to reach 1 million growers, but a new relationship with National Coffee Assn. USA will give the company a chance to share its model with major roasters like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts.

"Wise business has a greater shot at solving [poverty] than charity does," Parrish said.

The company has already affected the lives of some 15,000 farmers through its connections.

"Some of the best coffee is being supplied by the poorest growers. They just need to be connected to the value chain," Erkelens said.

The founder's plan is also to teach the growers how to expand their businesses and give them the tools and resources to do so.

Axiom does not just connect roasters and growers but also tracks the actual effect of such a connection on the farmers' lives.

Currently, the company tracks 2,000 farmers in Mexico and Honduras.

That's creating more accountability for where and how companies get their products, Erkelens said.

This may sound like the fair trade model, but Parrish said fair trade does not guarantee specific improvement in the lives of farmers.

"The beauty of what fair trade has done is they have taught consumers to think about the origin of their product," Parrish said. "The challenge with fair trade and the smallholder coffee growers is it hasn't really worked out for them."

Despite its commitment to tracking, Axiom does not dictate how money from the growers' connections should be spent. The company does not want the growers to rely on assistance and instead promotes "empowered independence."

Erkelens said that in one town, the growers invested in a teacher. Axiom's nonprofit arm helped provide desks and materials for the school where that teacher worked.

As more roasters come on board, the company plans to expand its model into Nicaragua and Guatemala, but Erkelens and Parrish said that if a roaster wants to connect with growers in a different country, they will go there too.

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