George Clooney is known for many things, and somewhere down the list you'll find both his role as brand ambassador for coffee giant Nespresso, and his longstanding humanitarian activism in Sudan and Darfur. So he was doubly qualified to face an international scrum of journalists, assembled by Nespresso at a press conference in Paris on Tuesday, and announce that Nespresso are pioneering coffee production in war-ravaged South Sudan.
Yes, this was a canny PR exercise. It's also news. Because Sudan is a country that could really, really use another industry. "There is only one product coming out of South Sudan at the moment, and that's oil," explained Clooney. "And the problem with oil is that a company takes the oil from the ground beneath the feet of the people who live there, pipe it out or drive it to a dock in Khartoum to sell it. The government will get some of the profit, but it never seems to trickle down to the people who live on the land they're taking the oil from." Clooney believes that coffee production represents an exciting opportunity to "change South Sudan so that they can help themselves and not rely on aid from people who they really don't want to have aid from' and encourage "the sort of national dignity which can help a young, struggling country succeed".
South Sudan is the world's newest country, having split from Sudan on 9 July 2011 following a referendum on independence which was part of a peace deal ending one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars. The landlocked region is oil rich yet poverty is widespread thanks to the country's virtually non-existent infrastructure, corruption and ongoing conflict, say campaigners.
Nespresso's expansion into Sudan (along with Ethiopia and Kenya) is no coincidence for Clooney; the actor and activist lobbied for it directly, following a trip to Costa Rica in 2010 and meeting coffee farmers who had benefited under Nespresso's AAA Sustainable Quality Program. "This is a tricky moment in South Sudan's history, and I asked Nespresso about the viability of coffee production in South Sudan. Back then I didn't know that South Sudan used to grow a lot of coffee, and that there are some great Arabica plants."
So as it turns out, Nespresso aren't introducing coffee production to South Sudan; they're revitalising a formerly-thriving $6 milllion industry which 40 years ago provided 25,000 coffee farmers with livelihoods, and which was entirely wiped out by the civil war. Nespresso's plans for South Sudan include replanting, a systematic training programme affecting up to 50,000 farmers and smallholders over the next six - seven years, and cataloguing of the country's unique coffee varieties.
Nespresso aren't the only coffee company to demonstrate a business and humanitarian interest in South Sudan. Texas-based Ascension Coffee this month launched their Restore The Bean initiative, similarly aiming to restore much-needed business and infrastructure that existed before the wars. But Nespresso's announcement takes to a whole new level the likelihood that 'South Sudan' will become the next buzzword amongst aficionados of single-origin coffee.
Of course, to a lot of ears the words Nespresso and sustainability will jar somewhat. Nespresso is owned by Nestle, which has been in the environmental doghouse ever since a 1974 report that multinational milk companies were causing infant illness and death in poor communities by promoting bottle feeding over breastfeeding. Then there's the inescapable fact that Nespresso's single-use plastic and aluminium coffee pods, of which Britain discarded a whopping 186 million in the past year, don't exactly scream 'green'. Other detractors balk at Nespresso's rapid ascendancy to market supremacy, and the cult-like loyalty of customers (branding expert Stuart Brown of Brown Communications calls Nespresso 'the Apple of pod-machine coffee') who are evangelical about the freshness, reliability and variety of the gem-coloured pods. There certainly seems no stopping Nespresso: machines can now be found in the kitchens of around 30% of the world's 24,000 Michelin-starred restaurants.
Clooney himself is no stranger to these arguments, and admitted that in interviews, at film festivals or in press conferences he's often grillled about his decision to star in Nespresso adverts. 'In fact I spend most of the money I make from these adverts keeping a satellite over the border of North and South Sudan to keep an eye on Omar al-Bashir [the Sudanese president] who is charged with war crimes at The Hague," he says. "When we got pictures of mass graves al-Bashir put out a statement accusing me of 'spying on him, how would I like it if a camera followed me everywhere?' I say this: 'Welcome to my life, Mr War Criminal.' I want war criminals to have the same about of camera attention as I do; I think that's fair."
16 July also saw the unveiling of the Nespresso Sustainability Advisory Board, which includes Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International, and Tensie Whelan, President of the Rainforest Alliance. Both were unapologetic about working with Nespresso. Lamb called Nespresso a 'leader in sustainability' and shares Clooney's optimism that coffee farming could further humanitarian aims in Sudan, citing the example of Rwanda. "When it's done right, coffee farmers can be the people driving development in their villages, providing the kind of quality coffee that companies like Nespresso need, but also providing quality of life in their villages and being the motors for change and development in their communities," says Lamb.
Whether you're a Nespresso devotee or you find that it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, it looks like by 2015 the name 'South Sudan' will mean a lot more to the average person than a war-ravaged country in the news. It will mean great coffee.
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