Empowering differently-abled people through sustainable coffee
Foreword Coffee provides employment for people with disabilities and special needs.
They are friends, supervisors and occasionally the ‘discipline masters’ of their employees.
Meet Nadi Chan, 25, and Lim Wei Jie, 26, the duo behind Foreword Coffee, a social enterprise that employs and trains differently-abled people to brew and serve coffee.
Established in April 2017, the pair aims to maintain Foreword Coffee as a socially responsible business by promoting sustainable coffee consumption and employing people with disabilities. A significant portion of their staff include people with autism and others from the Deaf community.
“We deal with all sorts of emotions every day because of the nature of the people we hire. It can get a little emotionally draining. However, it’s all about being in control of your emotions,” said Nadi, the director who joined in January 2018.
Foreword Coffee director, Wei Jie, told Youth.SG that the idea came about after he went for a student exchange programme in Amsterdam during his third year in the National University of Singapore (NUS).
After experiencing Amsterdam’s coffee culture, the psychology major was inspired by how coffee could bring people together through interactions between customers and baristas. He started thinking about how to combine this culture with his desire to provide sustainable employment for differently-abled people.
About a year later, Foreword Coffee was born.
“I’ve always wanted to create something sustainable for people with special needs so that after they leave the special education schools, they can use these skills and get job opportunities instead of staying at home,” said Wei Jie.
He also worked with Mountbatten Vocational School and Cerebral Palsy Alliance School Singapore to arrange student internships.
Wei Jie and Nadi were both part of an entrepreneurial internship programme in the NUS Overseas College. Nadi was researching on starting his own business, but chose to join Wei Jie because he found Foreword Coffee’s business meaningful.
Working with differently-abled people came with its own set of challenges, as the duo soon learnt while trying to establish Foreword Coffee.
“Initially, I was awkward and didn’t know how to talk to them, but I soon learnt they’re just like everyone else,” said Nadi, who had never worked with differently-abled people before, “Now they’re just like my younger siblings – a bit irritating but cute.”
Wei Jie added that as supervisors, they stress the importance of communication in order to develop understanding and patience within the diverse team.
He said: “We work with people who are Deaf. Sometimes, those who are used to speaking will talk over them, and this is something that we don’t want to happen.
“The employees are on a friend level, and I have to step in when they have minor tiffs like constantly calling or irritating each other. I feel like a discipline master sometimes.”
Apart from providing job opportunities for the differently-abled, Foreword Coffee advocates sustainable coffee consumption.
“By selling coffee, I can impact multiple people along the way, from the baristas at the end of the chain and even the farmers upstream if I’m able to directly import coffee beans from them and pay them a better rate,” said Wei Jie.
Other than importing coffee directly from producers, Foreword Coffee promotes environmental sustainability.
At their stores, no plastic cups or straws are provided. They recently brought in HuskeeCups, made from coffee husks, that customers can use for dine-in or takeaway coffees.
“Before I started the business, I learnt about the problems disposables are causing and I was thinking of how not to contribute to this problem while running this business,” said Wei Jie, who started out attending many events with just one espresso machine.
Wei Jie and Nadi have bold ambitions for Foreword Coffee to reach out to the heartlands.
“We want to normalise autism in society. We believe that people associate autism with meltdowns because that’s the most visible thing, but that’s not true,” Nadi explained.
Besides working on educating the public and shining a different light on differently-abled people, the young entrepreneurs are also constantly learning new things.
Nadi shared a memorable moment when one of the baristas taught him sign language during an event. “Usually, we’re the ones teaching her how to brew coffee or do cashiering, but now she’s teaching me sign language. It feels like the loop is closed as I am still learning from them too.”