Brewing a Big Idea: UT Alum Becomes Coffee/Social Entrepreneur
Sometimes ideas have to percolate: sometimes they just unfold. Agricultural and Resource Economics alum Blake Thomas brews an idea that is a bit of both.
Thomas graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in Agricultural and Resource Economics and a thesis on the effects of population and employment growth on urban water use. Upon graduation, he quickly departed for Nicaragua on an assignment with the Peace Corps.
He initially worked on a water sanitation project while assigned to the small mountain town of El Jícaro, Nueva Segovia, close to the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. However, his fork in the road occurred while assisting a small co-op of farmers, most of whom grew corn and beans, though there were a few coffee growers. This is where Thomas’s interest in coffee began to percolate.
“I was able to visit several coffee farms and mills where the beans were processed after harvest. I learned about the incredibly long and complex process of bringing coffee from farm to market,” said Thomas. “However, the main topic of conversation revolved around low market prices and the coffee fungus “la roya” that has been disrupting the coffee-producing world. The farmers were facing increasingly strong head winds, and the market didn’t seem to be responding appropriately.”
Six months into his service he met Helen Schafer, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, who shared his newly piqued coffee interest. Schafer’s best friend was the daughter of Donaldo Cuadra, a well-established coffee farmer who played a pivotal role in educating and collaborating with Thomas and Schafer regarding the coffee industry, ultimately asking them to consider starting a business importing and selling coffee in the U.S.
Upon their return to the States they began evaluating the market, while Cuadra continued to send Thomas coffee so he could develop his bean roasting craft.
Months later, Thomas and Schafer launched Tiny House Coffee, which uses a unique revenue-sharing model where they take the coffee on a consignment basis and compensate farmers with a percentage of their sales.
“The end result will be a final price of $3.25 per pound for the farmers, whereas the normal market price would be closer to $1.50,” said Thomas.
Theoretically, eliminating the middleman enables this doubling of profits for the coffee growers, which would, in turn, help them weather the troubling financial hit from “la roya” that so many coffee growers are facing.
“It is yet to be determined if Tiny House will succeed or if our model will ultimately help the farmers, but we are all very excited to find out,” said Thomas.
“Blake’s work highlights two focus areas for the University and the Department: entrepreneurship and the pursuit of international opportunities,” said Thomas’s former UT major professor Chris Clark. “His work to improve the lives of others through Peace Corps service and now his efforts to improve the market opportunities for smallholder coffee growers in Nicaragua are a source of pride for the Department and all who have worked with Blake.”
“My time at Tennessee got me excited about the world of agriculture and challenged me to look for potential improvements to outstanding systems. Beyond that I was able to learn a lot about learning and how to keep my eyes open for opportunities,” said Thomas. “That combination provided me the confidence to participate in Peace Corps and ultimately start Tiny House Coffee.”
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