A healthy stack of Alice Mahar’s formative memories involve sitting on her dad’s shoulders and peering into a sea of placards as her family marched in the streets. The daughter of parents with a strong sense of social justice, spending time at rallies and protests in and around Melbourne was a regular – and entirely normal – occurrence for Alice and her siblings.
“I always tell this story that I grew up with mum and dad going to rallies, and with an ingrained sense of social justice and standing up for what’s right in the world,” Alice tells Bank Australia over a Zoom call. “Those early days really set the tone for what I have gone on to do in my professional life.”
Alice is a Bank Australia customer and the founder and director of The Corner Store Network, a not-for-profit social enterprise that encompasses a café, coffee roastery, coffee importing and food preservery (as in, purveyors of preserves) based in Oakleigh. The organisation’s mission is all about ‘Preserving the Future’, which it achieves by dishing up food, economic and environmental justice in a variety of ways, including working directly with subsistence communities in Timor-Leste to address economic and food insecurity.
The idea came during a trip Alice took to Timor-Leste with her father, Andrew. He’d been working in the country to provide opportunities for young Timorese people for the best part of a decade, and has worked in social enterprise development for over 35 years. Alice had just finished up a chef apprenticeship and was at a loss for what to do next. “I had a lot of rage and anger towards the injustice and inequity in the world around me, but I had no real outlet to channel that anger into something productive,” says Alice. “So I went on this trip with Andrew to Timor, and we started looking at coffee.”
Specifically, they started looking at how they might be able to support the existing coffee industry in Timor-Leste, and help bring about a better quality of life for the farmers. The pair partnered with Brett Inder, a professor at Monash University who had been working to help grow the coffee industry in Timor-Leste, and shipped over their first half ton of beans later that year.
Acutely aware of their lack of knowledge when it came to coffee roasting, Alice and Andrew roped in Alice’s brother, Jake, who has since won medals at the Australia and New Zealand Coffee Roasting Championships. The team then tried to figure out how they could have the most positive impact.
They began by committing to plant a tree in Timor-Leste for every kilo of coffee roasted. Then they committed to paying farmers fairly, cutting out the middle people, and buying their coffee from the farmers directly. “Today, we bring in 20 tons of coffee annually, and we work directly with over 650 farmers,” says Alice. “All of the farmers are a part of the only Timorese-led coffee group in Timor, and we pay them 17% above the international fair-trade price for that coffee [The Corner Store Network has paid over $720,000 into Timorese farming communities since 2014]. We still pay to plant a tree for every kilo roasted – so that’s about 20,000 trees annually.”
“I think we are reasonably low-key, under the radar sort of operators,” adds Andrew, who’s also on the call. “It’s so much easier if you go and knock on the door and you get invited inside, than trying to get in through the window. And that's what happened in Timor. We got invited in there and the rest is history.”
Alice’s experience as a chef, and passion for food, was soon thrown into the mix. She started looking at food in Timor-Leste, and talking to Timorese women about how their production seasons worked. This process led to some startling insights. If there was an abundant season, for example, around 40% of food would go to waste, largely due to a lack of appropriate storage and lack of access to markets.
But on the flip side, explains Alice, there’s a season that they literally call “hungry season”, where locals are lucky to eat one meal a day.
“It seemed obvious to try and look at this 40% of food that’s being wasted, and this hungry season, and link them together through food preservation,” says Alice, who’s also quick to point out that there was already a culture of food preservation in Timor-Leste, but much of it had been lost during the Indonesian invasion and occupation. “We weren’t introducing a new concept, it was just returning some of these skills that had been lost through years of Elders not being able to hand down this knowledge.”
As well as The Corner Store Network’s bricks-and-mortar café, coffee roastery and preservery (which helps tackle local food waste) in Oakleigh, Melbourne, they have begun to set up a “preserving HQ” in Timor-Leste, which will include a fully-kitted out kitchen and coffee roastery, as well as accommodation. “It’ll be a live-in training facility for women and girls around Timor to come, stay and study for four to six weeks, and learn skills in food preservation, coffee roasting, coffee making and regenerative agriculture,” says Alice. “ They will then be equipped to go back into their own communities around Timor, and implement those skills with the assistance of our agriculture food security micro-loans program.”
“It’s about removing this colonial notion that we need to go in and give solutions,” says Alice. “The Timorese know exactly what they need to do to solve the problems that they face in their daily life. They just need a bit of support, and maybe some initial capital to get things going, and very quickly they’ll make it their own. The Corner Store Network is more about empowering self-determination, and allowing people to figure out solutions to the problems they face. It isn’t about charity or aid. Andrew always says that charity and aid shouldn’t be a lifestyle – not for those people receiving it, and not for those people giving it.”
If this seems like a lot, that’s because it is (and we’re only scratching the surface of what Alice and Andrew get up to on a daily basis). Alice’s efforts in the space have even been recognised by Barack Obama, who Tweeted her a message of support in January 2020.
As for what keeps Alice and Andrew going? “I don't know what else I would do,” says Andrew. “It's all I know. I've got three little grandkids, and I wonder what is going to happen in this world. It makes me want to just cry sometimes when I think about that. These are very difficult times, but I think that there is a sense of optimism that if we all get in and pull together somehow, we'll get through it.”
For Alice, it’s not about praise or receiving Tweets from an ex-president. “One of my favourite quotes is by [American novelist] Alice Walker, and she says: ‘Activism is my rent for living on this planet’. It’s so ingrained in me that we’re not just here for our own benefit, or for putting money into our own pocket. We’re here to be a part of society. We’re all linked.”
We are proud that The Corner Store Network is a Bank Australia customer. The Corner Store Network’s café and HQ is located at 42 Regent Street, Oakleigh, Melbourne. You can support The Corner Store Network by visiting the café or buying online.