An honest, inspiring chat with Jacqueline Arias, founder of ethical coffee brand, Republica.
How was Republica found?
It was a bad coffee in Colombia that led me to create RO. I took my young family and Canadian husband for a holiday to my birthplace, Colombia, where I couldn’t wait to experience the amazing coffee Colombia was known for. However, the reality was very different and very confronting – it was awful and overpriced. The Colombian coffee farmers were working tirelessly giving their best day to day and sending their very to harvest to overseas markets where the multinational coffee brand used to put into their over priced coffee brands. And the real kicker is those same coffee farmers and Colombian locals were then buying highly processed coffee from these multinationals at a highly inflated price in Colombia. How was that fair? I quickly realised, if it was happening in Colombia, it was happening everywhere. I returned from that holiday, promptly quit my job and started Republica Organic in my living room.
I was born in Colombia but grew up in Australia as my parents migrated here when I was very young. When you grow up in Australia, you soon learn how important coffee is, in our every-day life, we Aussies love coffee. And some of the world’s best coffee is grown in Colombia, so it’s a product that comes from the land and connects me to both of my homes, Australia and Colombia.
Who is behind the brand?
I’m a working mum of two and former ABC Journalist and Producer. I am currently based in Costa Rica where my son is finishing High School (despite him only starting what I could swear was only a few years ago – welp!). As the Founder, my personal beliefs really show through as the the business values. Given how and why the company was founded, all our coffees have always been Organic and Fairtrade. It’s important to me that only the purest ingredients go into our coffee, so what our customers put into their body is not harmful. And, of course, ensuring the hard working farmers get paid a fair wage for fair work – after all, we all deserve to be paid fairly for a day’s work, regardless is we live in Australia, Colombia or Timor.
I am also very selective of who I bring onto the team, especially now being based overseas. We have a very small, close knit team who operate out of Sydney. They also embody the Republica Organic values and allow the company to flourish without me being physically present (although with our daily video calls I’m sure they feel like I’m in the office)
How long has it been going for?
11 years! We hit the Coles shelves in 2007 as the first Organic Fairtrade Coffee in Australia, and then Woolworths shelves the next year.
Tell us about your production process ?
We source our Organic and Fairtrade Beans from all over the world. The coffee is imported to Australia as whole green beans, where we roast and pack everything in Sydney. From there, it’s shipped all over Australia to our customers. We do have a global supply chain, sourcing coffee beans from places like Mexico and Ethiopia amongst many other origins, to our Instant Coffee, which is made by a company in Europe because they really are the best in the world at creating an organic, kick ar*e freeze dried coffee. Our Nespresso compatible Capsules are made in another Aussie state, where the magic little biodegradable coffee pods are put together.
Tell us what makes your pods unique?
They’re biodegradable. That means you just pop them in your regular bin, and when in landfill they biodegrade at the same rate as an orange peel – just 730 days! By comparison, aluminium and plastic pods take up to 500 years to decompose. Republica Organic pods have also been awarded by Australian Organic as Non-alcoholic Beverage of the Year, which we are pretty chuffed with! Basically, these little pods of caffeinated goodness allow you a delicious convenient espresso style coffee, without the pod guilt.
Running a business can be tricky. Can you share a recent challenge in your business that you overcame?
Recently our Biodegrabable Capsules were under threat. They were going to be removed from the Coles shelves if they didn’t perform better. This was devastating to us, not only because it’s an income stream, but because it would have been a huge step backwards for our planet. Aluminium and plastic pods take up to 500 years to decompose, ours take two – that’s the same as an orange peel. With us off the shelves, it would have meant customers had no choice but to buy pods that will still be in landfill in six generations time. Scary! We make two decisions; We rebranded our packaging so the pack said biodegradable, and replaced our poorest performing blend with a new one, called Sydney. It was hard voluntarily getting rid of one of our products, but it was the right call. Sydney is now our top performer and sales across the rest of the range are up significantly.
What has working on your business taught you about yourself?
That I have the tenacity to out-do those around me. All of us have dreams and goals, the difference is that not many are prepared to stick it, and go the distance by making huge sacrifices needed to turn those dreams into reality. Most people only get to see the ‘result’ that is the success that comes from those sacrifices so it makes business look easy, but believe me, it requires tenacity, unwavering commitment to your core purpose and the ability to stay the course even when no one else believes in your dream. I can tell you the first three years meant giving up all socialising, there’s no time for weekends, holidays, friends, because you are working 24/7 on your business when it’s most fragile. You give up a lot, and it’s your dream that drives you, it’s your compass. But it’s worth it. So Ive learned that I have the tenacity to out-do and make my dreams a reality.
You used to be a journalist, how has that skill helped you in your present business?
Being a journalist equipped me with an essential skill, how to find answers to questions. When you’re a journalist you’re constantly questioning the ‘why’ of an issue, that very same skill transferred beautifully to business building. When I’m faced with a problem, I have the skill to find the answers no matter how big the problem. I can pick up the phone and literally ring anybody, no matter who they are, because as a journalist you’re not afraid to speak to anyone even if they are the PM.
How hard is it to be fair-trade as a business?
H-A-R-D. It’s the truth! The additional levy we pay to the farmers, as well as to Fairtrade, is not a small amount. We also pay an additional organic levy, so it makes it extremely challenging to be competitive against the other multinational brands at the supermarket. It’s a fact Republica Organic competes against the global coffee giants. We cannot charge much more as most consumers simply are not willing to pay extra in Australia (yet!). But, at the end of the day, being Fairtrade is in Republica’s DNA, we truly believe in the difference it makes to literally 100’s of thousands of farmers, so we simply absorb the cost and get on with it. We don’t just say we source sustainably and we walk to the talk with our third party certifications, that’s what makes Republica Organic a Clean Company.
How has this business affected other parts of your life?
Where to start! This company is basically my third child, so a lot of sacrifices have been made while I dedicated myself to getting the company to where it is today. I have, quite unknowingly, been living under the ‘Four Burners’ method of work-life balance. Imagine you have a cook-top and there are four burners – one is family, one is friends, one is health and the final one is work. You can only have two burners on at once. For me work has been on full burn constantly for the last 11 years, so I have had many occasions where I have sacrificed time with family, friend and my health. I’ve missed many birthdays and I didn’t see the inside of a gym for a very long time. The way I see it, there is no such thing as work life balance because for me, they are all one life. I could be working on a Sunday and having time with my kids on a Wednesday, and that’s ok and ultimately it is my choice.
The business has also affected me in the most positive ways. I never imagined being able to say to people ‘I built Australia’s number 1 Organic Coffee Company’, ‘Virgin is serving Republica Organic on their flights’ Or ‘I’m launching in the US next year’. Some very proud moments that keeping me going during the hard times.
What are you most proud of with Republica Coffee?
Staying true to who we are in this current supermarket climate. It would be easy for us to get rid of the Organic and Fairtrade Logos and replace it with claims that we are organic and source sustainably, and purchase inferior coffee. We would certainly make a lot more money, but we would also just be another coffee company. When I think of the number of farmers who’s lives are better because of Republica’s commitment to Fairtrade and Organic, it’s hard not to be incredibly proud. Those farmers make our lives better by providing such high quality coffee too, it’s a win-win.Through Republica Organic’s investment in one particular farming cooperative in Timor, we’ve been able to bring mobile medical assistance to over 19,000 farmers, when they previously had to walk for five days to get any medical treatment. That’s just one cooperative in one country, magnify that by the number of cooperatives we purchase from and it’s a pretty good feeling.