Social enterprise creating ‘endless opportunities’ for deaf community

I Love Coffee recruits and trains deaf people as baristas.
I Love Coffee recruits and trains deaf people as baristas.

A deaf woman who is to become a barista thanks to a social enterprise has said she is “excited to start”, and hopes to encourage customers to learn to sign.

Gary Hopkins, 58, who hails from Cape Town, South Africa, founded social enterprise I Love Coffee, which recruits and trains deaf individuals to become baristas.

It is part of a wider mission to break the barriers of communication between the deaf and the hearing through the power of ordering drinks.

He said the venture – which began in South Africa seven years ago and is now putting down roots in London – was a “happy accident” which has since gone on to help more than 100 deaf people.

The social enterprise is expanding its operations by launching in London on February 6 in partnership with WeWork – which has had I Love Coffee-trained baristas based at all three of its locations in South Africa since 2019.

Initially, four baristas are to work for I Love Coffee in London and will be stationed in WeWork locations in Holborn and Covent Garden, with one of them being Prisilla Kwakye.

Ms Kwakye signed to the PA news agency about the importance of enterprises like I Love Coffee for those in the deaf community.

Group of people talking to each other
Gary Hopkins with new barista Prisilla Kwakye, left, and interpreter Gloria Nsofu (Grace Donaghy/PA)

“Companies like this are really important as they create job opportunities for the deaf community that we wouldn’t normally have,” the 21-year-old, who is based in Croydon, south London, said.

“As a barista, you can learn to make coffees, you can teach signs to customers for the different coffees and then they can take those learnings with them.

“I am really excited to make new friends and meet new people and have conversations with customers about signing.

“Becoming a barista will be good for me; I can build my confidence up, upskill myself and maybe in the future set up my own business, become a manager, so the opportunities are endless.”

Ms Kwakye said she has previously faced difficulties finding a job.

“You go through a lot of rejections and often you have to contact companies using an interpreter, so that often creates barriers.”

Mr Hopkins told PA: “Prisilla is the perfect candidate for a barista and has embraced the culture of I Love Coffee. I’m hugely excited for her future.”

He also spoke about the origins of the enterprise.

“As we have engaged with staff, we have learnt that there is a lot more to it than just making coffee,” he said.

“The enterprise gives those individuals who are deaf the confidence to reach their goals and explore other job opportunities, whether it’s becoming a sign language trainer or doing something completely different.

“Some of our baristas have gone on to complete computer science or project management courses.

“We have seen our baristas grow beyond where they started and that is always a joy for us.”

Mr Hopkins said his biggest hope is that “one day, I Love Coffee does not exist”.

He explained: “Because then it means we’ve actually created that bridge between the hearing and the deaf and that an organisation like ours doesn’t have a purpose anymore.”

Girl making a coffee
Prisilla Kwakye said she has more confidence for the future thanks to her training (Grace Donaghy/PA)

He said he “has to pinch” himself that his work has reached the UK.

“At I Love Coffee we always look to collaborate with organisations who have a shared interest in creating a positive impact for underserved communities, and so it was a natural fit to expand our partnership to WeWork locations in London,” he added.

There are plans to recruit and train more baristas as the scheme expands.

Mathieu Proust, chief operating officer for international at WeWork, said: “It’s a real honour to continue to play a part in I Love Coffee’s incredible journey to help create a more accessible and independent future for the deaf community.

“Having worked closely with Gary and his team in South Africa, we’re thrilled to be able to support I Love Coffee’s expansion to London, and we look forward to seeing their positive work for the deaf community ripple across the capital.”

For WeWork members, I Love Coffee’s top tips will be accompanied by an interactive iPad that will show those in the queue how to order their coffee through sign language.

Mr Hopkins and his team continue to strive to create more opportunities for the deaf community through a simple cup of coffee, and hope to expand operations beyond just baristas to establish roasteries, recruit trainers and put down roots in new cities.