Virgin Active South Africa’s in-office coffee bar doesn’t just serve a great brew – it’s also providing some welcome opportunities for South Africa’s deaf community.
Zainab Slemang van Rijmenant, Virgin Active South Africa’s PR Account Manager, explains more….
My 8am coffee fix at the office gets me through a slew of meetings every day. By 12pm, I’m back at I Love Coffee, the in-office coffee bar at Virgin Active South Africa’s national head office.
I put my right index finger in front of my face, then cup my left hand over it, before making a drinking motion with my right index finger and thumb. I’ve just signalled to the barista, Thobeka, that I’d like one single espresso, and she understands me perfectly.
That’s because I Love Coffee isn’t your typical in-office coffee bar – and Thobeka is not your typical barista. She has a hearing impairment, and I Love Coffee is one of the few places in the country that provides employment opportunities for deaf people in South Africa. We’ve just communicated in South African sign language and although South Africa has 11 official languages, sign language is not one of them.
Established as a social development enterprise in 2016, I Love Coffee’s purpose is to provide training and employment opportunities for South Africa’s deaf community – and what better way than through the love of a good cup of coffee? Grabbing a coffee with your colleagues or mates is a social ritual shared in almost all cultures across the world and the work experience Thobeka and her colleagues get at I Love Coffee empowers them socially and economically, whilst providing them with the skills and confidence they need to engage with the ‘hearing’ community.
The impact of this is profound. Not only does it break down the communication barrier between hearing and deaf South Africans, but it also addresses the stigma of people with disabilities, normalises the employment of deaf people, helps their self-confidence, and lessens the financial burden on families.
“Over the past three years, we’ve built a business model that works,” says co-founder Gary Hopkins. “And where it works best is in a corporate environment, in-office cafés – and that’s where we see our growth happening. “We’ve learned how to make it work and we want to teach South Africa how better to work with the deaf community.”
In addition to serving Virgin Active South Africa’s head office, I Love Coffee has also received business-development investment from the recently launched Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship South Africa, which aims to help the company with its business development services, impact drivers and sustainable processes – all to help to scale their purpose over the next three years.
I accept my espresso with a “thank you” (placing the fingertips of my right hand on my chin) and head back to my desk, knowing that I’ve just taken one tiny step in ‘changing business for good’.