This Cooperative Life Blog Series
Interview #1: Keba Konte
Keba's Cooperative Life Story
Keba Konte is a person who was once described to me as “next level.” He is.
Keba, who has lived in the Bay Area his whole life, works from the Coffee Lab--a place that has the warming spiced smell of coffee, wooden hula-hoops, reclaimed antique furniture, and a green wall with plants in the shape of Africa. Of course the place he founded that houses Red Bay Coffee is outrageously beautiful, because Keba is “next level” as an artist and entrepreneur.
Interview Caveat. While Keba and I did not discuss his art, I would be remiss to not mention and share his artwork, which you can learn more about at Artisluv. Some of the art pieces that I’ve most admired of his are shown below to give you a sense of his artistic brilliance:
Interview “Aha’s.” Keba’s entrepreneurial expertise and cooperative life history was the true impetus for our interview. I first learned of Red Bay Coffee through the fortune of CoFED offices being at the Impact Hub Oakland that once a week served as a Red Bay coffee shop. I also found their kick-starter Good Jobs. Good Coffee. shared the vision of jobs that prioritized worker’s wealth and principled profits to raise over $87,000.00 in community support. So I walked into the interview extremely in Awe of who Keba was and his work. My admiration grew for him and he shared his story, space, coffee and infectious delight.
Here are some gems from our interview that demonstrate Keba’s cooperative life:
Jolly Ranchers & Blow Pops: Keba has been an entrepreneur from an early age. In middle school, he would melt jolly ranchers and meld them with Blow Pops to create a new, colorful candy that he would create and sell. That was just one of the things he sold.
Artists Cook & Keba’s Path to Coffee: “As an artist our community came together and we ate.” All of the flavors Keba experience fueled his work at Guerilla Cafe and Guerilla Cafe sparked Keba’s growing interest in coffee. He opened an additional coffee shop Chasing Lions at San Francisco State. Red Bay Cafe was opened at the Impact Hub Oakland, as his third cafe. Watching the wave of gentrification, Keba asked, “What role does coffee play in this big picture, and how can we do it different?”
Red Bay Coffee & Good Jobs: As Keba put it, “To stay put people need wages, you are not going to do that with low-wages. Typically that’s all that a cafe can offer. There’s usually not much profit to share, so that was the challenge I gave myself.” With community raised funds we were able to offer higher wages and will share profits. Keba is also incubating people-centered micro-coffee business to support folks with the highest barriers to employment.
The Coffee Lab: The location of the interview, was not just where the coffee was roasted, brewed and packaged, it also serves as a business incubator for amazing folks, like:
Eljah: A national wrestling champion, Oakland native, who works hard and has a lot of energy. Keba is setting him up with his own mobile coffee shop to sell cold brew at Lake Merrit.
Harrison: Was formerly incarcerated, and has been a part of the team for a while. He’ll be using our farmer’s booth stand when it’s not in use to sell coffee at festivals.
Jess: A young sister who was also formerly incarcerated, is a personal trainer who works here and was trained from scratch. We support her business by contributing to her classes and working out every Saturday with her.
Solomon: Trained with us, he’s in a wheelchair and gets his medicine from cannabis and had the idea to sell coffee in those clubs, which he calls the “four wheeled cafe.”
An overview of Keba’s answers to our two signature questions:
1) What was Keba’s earliest experience of cooperation?
KEBA: It was in school, with friends, it's fundamental to what we do as humans to play and discover. We were builders and we would make our toys, sharing what we had to make racing carts together.
I also remember my hippy friends were members of a co-op and it was a grocery store. It was a word that it looked like any other grocery store, so I didn’t know what it was...fast forward to college, which was political organizing, which is for sure cooperative. I organized with the BSU and Black People’s REvolutionary Party and Roots Against War and this was an enlightening process about political resistance, organizing around common struggle throughout the world--these classic protracted struggles you hear about, but really learn about when you organize with people who experience that first hand.
I also experience co-ops as part of Soul Salon 10 An Artist Collective, there were a lot of artists, but the art market was never that strong in terms of accessible galleries. So we’d produce our own exhibition, which seems commonplace now, but traditionally you wait until a gallery offers you so in the spirit of DIY take your future in your own hands, we figure we’d create our own galleries, curate ourselves, started with 10 and expand to 50 of artists of various skills.We did a big show at the African museum on Marvin Gaye and there was a line out the door, down the street--so we had successful stories.
2) Which cooperative principle was Keba most feeling on the day we interviewed him?
KEBA: They are really good ones; 3, 4, 5, 7, but I’m feeling my community everyday. In terms of autonomous I’m feeling that today and everyday and being an entrepreneur and thinking about how you’re going to take care of 35-40 people on your payroll. So I’m feeling all of those right there.
Full interview can be listened to on this link:
THIS COOPERATIVE LIFE story series is a project of The Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), which provides tools and training for campus communities to develop strong cooperatively-run food businesses. We engage with a dynamic network to increase access to healthy food while promoting thriving, equitable, and resilient local economies. Special thanks to Smoking Ghosts for providing music, Kai Nagai-Rothe for production support, and our producer Faiza Farah.