Robbies Ability Article

When Robbie Francis, who was born with one leg, saw the appalling conditions of disabled people on the other side of the world, she knew she had to do something …

Originally from Hamilton, Dr Robbie Francis is the co-founder of The Lucy Foundation, a social enterprise that works with local communities to develop a culture of inclusiveness for those with disabilities. This is based around the building of a coffee trade that is environmentally, economically and ethically sustainable.

Robbie was born with a disability—the foundation is even named after ‘Lucy’—the pet name she gave her prosthetic left leg! She has done various political and NGO work around the world, and has a PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Otago.

The inspiration for the enterprise came about when Robbie was interning in Mexico City for Disability Rights International. It was here she was exposed to the atrocious treatment of those living with disabilities in developing countries. She recalls a particular visit to a place where disabled people were treated as ‘second class citizens’.

‘I had never seen anything quite like it, a huge number of people living in a very small space in torturous conditions,’ Robbie says. ‘That really became the turning point for me, where I understood that as a disabled woman with an education and a support network, I had a responsibly to stand up for my own community.

‘Coming out of that place it really struck me. I had Brooke Fraser’s words ringing through my head. “Now that I have seen I am responsible, I will tell the world”.’


A Strength, Not Weakness

Back in New Zealand, Robbie and some old friends began thinking about how they could show the value of diversity through business and employment. With much of the world perceiving disability as a deficit, burden or weakness, Robbie wanted to demonstrate it as a beautiful variation of life.

‘It’s something I consider my strength, not my weakness,’ she says of her own disability.   

‘It has its challenges for sure, I’m not debating that. But we really wanted to show that we can see it as a strength and recognise the value that disabled people bring to our communities and societies.’

Robbie and friends thought about their love for coffee and decided it could be a superb vehicle for change.

After a number of emails were sent off around the world, they stumbled upon Pluma Hidalgo—a coffee farming village in the state of Oaxaca in south-west Mexico. The isolated mountain community had a number of indigenous families affected by disabilities.

It wasn’t long before The Lucy Foundation established a team on the ground, with Field Directors Jessica Pantoja-Sanders and Ryan Sanders moving to Pluma Hidalgo with their children in 2016.

The Pluma Coffee project has since worked to develop a sustainable value chain of coffee that is not only inclusive of disabled people, but works for the good of the environment, community and economy.

You will see people with disabilities in every step of the process in Mexico, from working the fields to serving in the cafés.

Lucy’s business partners in New Zealand, who also support the training and employment of disabled people, include coffee importer John Burton Ltd, the Able Coffee Collaborative roastery, Coffee Educators barista training school and Colab Cafe in Lower Hutt.


‘Little Wins’ Make a Difference

Now, after three years of operation, the team in Pluma has made a number of achievements.

They have hosted more than 60 inclusive and accessible agricultural workshops with coffee-farming families and the wider Pluma community.

They have also created more than 6000 litres of organic bio-fertiliser and 600 litres of organic insect and disease treatment for crops. A before-and-after photo on The Lucy Foundation Facebook page shows how this fertiliser has transformed unhealthy coffee plants into ones that are fertile, green and lush.

Robbie says while the work has been slow and daunting, it’s the little wins that make it worthwhile and remind her why she does it.

She talks of Pepe, a young man who was originally unable to go to school because of a disability since birth.

‘Now he’s 21, is taking reading lessons and is reading at Level 3. He’s told us he wants to start a business and one day wants to run the Lucy Foundation.’

Another man has gone from being a social outcast with limited social skills to confidently interacting with others in the community.

‘His sister told us that before working with us people would mock and laugh at him. Now he’s considered one of the cool guys in town and can go do his own shopping and attends workshops on his own. She says no one laughs at him anymore as he’s a valued member of the community who has a sense of belonging.’

Robbie also talks of the win of going from 15 to 600kg of coffee imports from Pluma to New Zealand.

‘Even though we’re not talking about huge amounts of coffee, to go from that much in the space of such a short amount of time on the smell of an oily rag is absolutely heart-warming.’

A major achievement of 2019 has been the transitioning of leadership to two local woman—a longer term goal of the foundation.

The next steps will now be about not only producing more coffee at a better quality, but distributing it around New Zealand. This will be aimed at those in work spaces and getting them to transition from standard office coffee, to coffee that supports human rights and environmental sustainability.

Other successes of The Lucy Foundation include:

  • helping Coffee Educators in Lower Hutt develop a local barista training programme in Pluma Hidalgo (also delivered in sign language)
  • setting up beehives to increase coffee quality through pollination while producing additional income for families
  • the support of three disabled people into paid, part-time contract work
  • launching their first batch of Pluma coffee and cascara tea in New Zealand in 2017
  • increasing the quantity of Pluma products imported into New Zealand.

‘I truly believe that the model we’re working from has the potential to transform the way that we include diversity in business,’ Robbie says.  


The Salvation Army has its own Fair Trade coffee brand Hamodava, check it out at