10×10: Sebastian

Sebastian Martin

LearnServe Ethiopia 2004


I dare you to ask me anything about coffee.

Three years ago, if you were to say “Sebastian, what’s the best way to grind coffee?” or “Which type of bean gives you the purest flavor?” or “How does coffee production impact communities in South America?” I would have given you a blank stare.  Now, coffee has become my life.  And it all started with a LearnServe trip to Ethiopia in 2004.

My family comes from Bolivia and Chile, and frequent travel to these countries gave me more exposure to poverty than the average student.  However, traveling to Ethiopia and seeing the difficult realities there reinforced a conviction I’ve always known: I would like to change lives.  This catalyst led me on a somewhat convoluted path to discovering my calling as a coffee connoisseur.

In college I wanted to do something to help improve impoverished communities in Bolivia.  I started an informal one-man operation buying Bolivian craft products and selling them in the UK at farmers markets on the weekend.  I would make a pretty good profit after the mark-up, and I donated every penny I made to social change organizations back in Bolivia.  It was a fun venture, and one that made me realize I would like to run a proper business one day.

Fast forward several years and several adventures, and I now find myself living my dream.  I am the founder of Cambio Coffee in China – cambio being the Spanish word for “change.”  I chose coffee for two reasons.  As evidenced by the Starbucks-per-block phenomenon in China, it is a growing market.  And, though most people are unaware, it’s an industry in need of reform.

This year Cambio Coffee will launch its wholesale operation in Shanghai, China, working on two fronts to change the coffee culture.  Our first concern is that although coffee is a lucrative business, the coffee growers are disadvantaged by unfair wages.  A traditionally greedy series of middlemen lie between the farmers and your morning latte.

I have spent the past two years building relationships with a network of growers in Latin America and China.  The growers that we have selected to work with Cambio Coffee not only provide quality goods, but the majority of them also have facets of their operation that support social or environmental initiatives in their home communities.

I am now in the process of setting up the importing, roasting, and wholesale distribution facilities.  It’s a wonderful combination of scary and exciting at the same time, and has taught me that it is possible to truly make a difference.  As huge and tragic as the world may seem, even if you can change one family’s life, that counts; it’s worth it.


Sebastian Martin graduated from the LearnServe Ethiopia Program in 2004.  Sebastian is a graduate of the Washington International School, Warwick University, and the Global Entrepreneurship Program at Babson College.  He is the founder of Cambio Coffee, and now lives in Shanghai, China.

LearnServe 10×10 interviews and profiles compiled by Melanie Barlow (Fellows 2010) and Julia Peck (Fellows 2011)

Celebrate our 10th Anniversary with us on November 6th.

3 thoughts on “10×10: Sebastian

  1. Not only do I like your business idea, I also like your message. Some people love coffee so much, it turns into an addiction. I like that you’ve actually conducted researches and taken advantage of this opportunity. With the opportunity being the popularity of coffee. Although I’ve never heard of anything like this, I’m glad I have now. I respect your definition of change. And the fact that to you it does’t have to be extravagant, and even if the act of change isn’t extravagant, it’s still extravagant. I am concerned about how you’ll gain attention being the fact that everyone is focused on Starbucks. Yes, your profit is being donated to charity but what really makes you different?

    P.S. Hopefully that made sense.

  2. This is such an interesting business because it’s so different and unique to any other issues that are talked about. Personally, I learned so much: coffee growers are at a big disadvantage due to unfair wages. It’s amazing how the venture grew from simply selling products at farmers markets to Cambio Coffee in China. What were some of the factors that affected Sebastian’s decision to help others in such a major way?

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