Three Avocados to Change the World: The Friday Five with Joe Koenig

When you think of all the social needs in this world—poverty, war, and diseases of all kinds—your head spins at the enormity of the task to which we are called, the task of redeeming the world. Joe Koenig decided to be part of the solution through a unique form of activism. He launched the Three Avocados Coffee Company, which sells delicious coffee and directs all of the net proceeds to the drilling of wells in Uganda.

I like coffee. I also like digging wells in Uganda. So Joe stopped by for a chat for today's Friday Five:

What inspired you to start a coffee company?

I went to Uganda in January of 2010 with a mission group from my church. Two things happened there. One day, while our bus was stopped, I saw a young man on the side of the road sitting with his bicycle beneath a tree, exhausted. I was struck with the realization, in that moment, that I could have been that young man. I had done nothing to deserve birth in the United States with such a multitude of opportunities in front of me. And he had done nothing to deserve birth into a life of extreme poverty and hardships. It's only by the grace of God that I possess and enjoy the things I do. Now it's my duty to do everything I can to use those resources to help those in need.

Second, while worshiping with a congregation in the village of Bulopa, underneath a tarp that was strung across a few sticks in the ground, I saw a poor widow place three avocados in the offering basket. Those three avocados were virtually everything she had. In Uganda, the pastors are not paid. They travel from village to village and rely on God to provide for their needs. This poor widow had given all she possessed in devotion to God and in support for the pastor. It was truly an amazing gift.

With some of the others on the trip, I began exploring different products that could be produced in Uganda and sold in the United States in order to raise money for projects in Uganda. On further research, it became clear to me that coffee was the best choice. High quality coffee was already produced in large quantities in Uganda, and since it's consumable, we had the potential to build a repeat customer base.

Often Americans don't realize that many people groups around the world have no access to clean water. How pervasive is the problem?

About one billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water. And many that do "have access" to clean water have to travel for miles to reach it.

I can honestly say, I had no idea this problem existed until my first trip to Uganda. It's truly staggering to think that more people—by a multiple of three—do not have access to clean water than live in the United States. I challenge you, for one day, to walk to the furthest water source in the building whenever you need water. Just for one day. Then, imagine that walk was four miles. Imagine too that your water is infested with bacteria and parasites, and yet you and your children are forced to drink it every day because there are no other options.

Every day, thousands of children die from something as simple as diarrhea, due to dirty water. The have to consume this water in order to survive—and yet it's killing them. That is a preventable problem.

How does it help for me in Chicago to buy coffee from you in St. Louis?

The concept behind Three Avocados was simple. We're not asking you to spend more money. We're asking you to redirect money you're already spending. Since you're going to buy, so why not buy coffee that supports a greater cause than paying dividends to shareholders? We use 100 percent of the profits to provide clean water in Uganda.

What was the biggest challenge in establishing Three Avocados?

It's a lot harder to sell coffee than you might think! The biggest challenge is getting the word out on a shoestring budget. Right now, we're relying on word of mouth. We're also constantly seeking new retail partners in order to get the coffee in front of more people. Once we get it in front of people, it does very well and people really like the product.

What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to get active, possibly even start a nonprofit and fight an issue like the lack of drinking water? 

You need to constantly maintain your focus on why you're doing what you're doing. It's easy to get discouraged or forget why it matters. For me, I think about the people I met in Uganda, people who are hard-working but have very few opportunities. If you stay persistent, you can make a difference. Change one life, and you've changed the world.