Jake Elster Creates Organization for 'Do-Good Coffee'


by Marilyn Sherman

When Jake Elster, a student in the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program, was working with a cooperative of 10,000 farmers in Uganda, he heard their stories and spent nights in their homes. He realized that the coffee farmers needed help. They were the bottom rung of an antiquated system with a supply chain of nearly 150 middle men draining their income. At the same time, he saw that the farmers had the same desires as the coffee consumers for quality and connection. "That's when it clicked," he says. "I felt frustrated that both farmers and consumers were being cheated."

He was on his way to creating a nonprofit coffee business called Crop to Cup, a process he started while he was applying to the MSLOC program. His pilot project involves about 400 farmer families near the tiny town of Buninyanya in eastern Uganda. Coffee, the source of 80 percent of the region's income, is a vehicle for development in the country, he asserts.

As he pursues his passion for Crop to Cup, being a student in the MSLOC program gives Elster direction to develop an effective and humane organization
Jake Elster, a student in the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change program, applies the program's teachings to his coffee business that connects consumers with Ugandan farmers' stories.

The idea behind his business is "to connect the farmer directly to the consumer." He cuts out the traditional middle men and bypasses bottlenecks but still provides checks on quality. "I want to see that value gets back to the communities in the form of wages," he says. By selling "do-good coffee, not feel-good coffee," he aligns the company with conscientious consumers in the niche market for organic or fair-trade goods.

Technology is his tool for change. Online, farmers speak directly to consumers through videos and interviews. Meanwhile, consumers can keep track of exactly who grew the coffee they're sipping. Consumers' "dynamic participation" also includes online coffee reviews, community rankings, and the ability to view environmental information and certification of quality control at www.croptocup.com. The goal for Elster and his business partner is nothing less than "a new kind of commerce."

As he pursues his passion for Crop to Cup, being a student in the MSLOC program gives Elster direction to develop an effective and humane organization. He looks to MSLOC for formal training in analyzing systems, operating within them and improving upon them. In addition, he appreciates that with MSLOC students and faculty he can test his ideas and receive valuable feedback. "Being able to plug into this community is essential," he says.

As an intellectual person launching a business, he also feels the need for a cognitive framework. He values that MSLOC subject matter meshes with his interest in knowledge management, which he finds "incredibly important," and strategic change. "In coffee we're working within calcified institutions," he remarks. "I like the emphasis on learning within an organization."

Elster's current venture draws on his strengths and experiences. In his previous job as director of programs and services for the entrepreneurship program at Illinois Institute of Technology, he helped launch 36 companies. He has also been acquiring grants since his senior year at Washington University, when he conducted an awardwinning photographic and ethnographic study of homelessness in Chicago.

Always interested in international work, Elster initially went to Africa his junior year of college in 2003 to assist with development of a water project for public health. The next year he went back to develop an Internet center for rural technology and leadership training. After securing land from the government and partnership with a Ugandan organization, he started the first Internet café in central Uganda. "We intended to create an ethical program," he says, explaining that the goal was to keep the Internet affordable.

Success is hard to pin down for Elster, but with Crop to Cup he's giving himself three years to prove there's a marketplace that values information and individuals. He would like to see others duplicate his work, but even if he fails, he sees benefits. "I would have made some impact on one community — and also gained tons of experience."
By Marilyn Sherman