“Magic beans” is one of the articles collected in the book Advancing Change: inspirational stories from a decade of giving, created on the occasion of the Trafigura Foundation’s 10th anniversary. Cemal Ezel explains how he launched two successful social enterprises employing homeless people as baristas.
Adan Abobaker sat on the kerb in London’s Borough Market, his pocket clinking gently. Not with change – he didn’t have much of that – but with shiny medals incongruous with the one set of shabby clothes he had worn every day since losing his wife and daughter, his job and his home. The reality of homelessness is such that, even when a person wears the Queen’s Gallantry Medal – awarded in 2012 after Abobaker jumped off Blackfriars Bridge to save a woman’s life – nobody sees him.
The exception is Cemal Ezel, who co-founded Old Spike Roastery to train the 47 per cent of the homeless community in London who are capable of working to be baristas for his Peckham-based business, paying the London Living Wage of GBP 10.20 and providing housing and bank accounts. This led to the creation of Change Please, a sister brand with the same mission of fighting homelessness by leveraging the British capital’s passion for coffee.
“It was a waste of talent,” he says, reflecting on Abobaker’s story. “Adan was so good for us, he’s a hero, but when he sits on the pavement, people think is it drugs, is it alcohol, is it mental health issues? They don’t see the person. Back in 2011 he was at rock bottom. He was walking along, heard a scream and saw a woman jump off the bridge; he took off his clothes and dove into the Thames. He saved her but developed hypothermia. He was given the highest civilian award, but for six years he remained on the streets. Our mission is to find as many Adans as possible and help them lead dignified lives through the offer of decent jobs.”
Old Spike Roastery imports coffee beans from socially conscious farms in Peru and Tanzania that support victims of domestic abuse and landmines. It is then roasted and crafted into the perfect cup. In partnership with The Big Issue – the magazine sold by homeless people to earn them an income – it is distributed from 17 mobile coffee carts and bars through Change Please by homeless baristas such as Thomas Noble, who believes the initiative saved his life after he was sent to prison. “I was born in Britain but we moved to America, chasing the dream,” he says.
“It didn’t turn out that way. I got myself into trouble and was deported back to the UK. The House of St Barna bas [a homeless charity] referred me to Old Spike.”
Ezel takes in referrals from London charities and local councils, and applicants such as Noble complete a month’s training with The Big Issue. A weekly report is then provided on timekeeping, money management, reliability and quality of customer interaction; this is alongside an assessment of interests and passion for the job. Cemal hires 40 per cent of people referred to Change Please and if the programme is full, alternative employment is found. He has an impressive success rate, with 84 per cent of participants still in employment after six months.
“The sky’s the limit,” says Noble. “Old Spike has given me back confidence I lost. Prison strips down your ego, it kills who you are. Old Spike gave me back the confidence and the support to survive.” With the Trafigura Foundation’s backing, Ezel purchased a brand-new coffee roaster that doubles production from five to 12.5 kilos over 15 minutes, which will help to boost business, meaning more individuals such as Thomas Noble can be trained and employed. The Foundation has also enabled Change Please to open a fast-track centre-of-excellence training academy. “Within 10 days of working for us, that person isn’t homeless anymore,” Ezel says.
It is this kind of outcome he craved as a disillusioned City worker travelling in Vietnam, before Old Spike was established in 2015. A chance conversation with a stranger caused him to reassess the moral value of his life’s work.
“I was on a bus and someone asked me what I did. I told him I wasn’t happy with my job, and he said: ‘You should do the rocking chair test.’ This involves imagining sitting in your rocking chair at the age of 90, looking back on your life, and thinking about whether you have left the world in a better place. I decided to try to make a difference.”
During a visit to a silent teahouse managed by hearing impaired women, Ezel had his light-bulb moment to create a speciality coffee brand that didn’t just taste good, but is good. “For the first time in 29 years, I could do business and good at the same time.”
The Trafigura Foundation has helped make that dream a reality. “As a not-for-profit, it is hard for us to compete with more commercial organisations,” Ezel says. “We use 100 per cent compostable cups and convert grounds into biofuel, but this costs money. The Trafigura Foundation’s support allows us to compete with high-street chains that don’t pay the living wage.”
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