Coffee, Creativity, and Community:
A Conversation with Cameron Mcallister and Gemma Cairney
Images by Matthew Arthur Williams
In a serendipitous encounter that unfolded in Malawi, Cameron and Gemma's paths crossed, intertwining their love for travel, creativity and coffee. What began as a chance meeting evolved into a remarkable partnership, merging their shared passions and their connection to Scotland.
We sat down with Cameron and Gemma on a warm summer evening at Summerhall, to hear more about their transformative experiences in Malawi and MF Coffee Project's mission to sustainably source coffee whilst empowering local communities.
Can you tell us the story of how you two met?
Cameron: We met in Malawi in 2018…
Gemma: We met completely by chance. It's one of those weird stories to tell. The the more you try to explain it, the harder it becomes. It’s a continuing story of creativity, travel, love & coffee. I was staying at the Mushroom Farm that Cameron ran and I was doing a writeup for The Observer. I got to know what he was doing in Malawi and I just found it absolutely compelling. I thought, wow, this is just so special and unique, I have never met anyone like this person before or seen the cultivation of a project like MF Coffee Project.
Tell us more about MF Coffee Project and the story behind it?
Cameron: Whilst I was working at The Mushroom Farm I started meeting local coffee farmers around the area. I met my business partner on the project first and we both just really hit it off from the start which led to us meeting with hundreds of other local farmers and realising that Malawi produces some amazing coffee. I now co-own MF Coffee with two local coffee farmers in Malawi who have pretty much been coffee farmers their whole life. We only work with 48 local farmers who mainly consist of friends, family and neighbours, so the whole process is really organic and the community is close knit. We then buy the coffee cherries from the farmers, which we then take to our washing station to process.
Was it always the plan to bring the concept of MF Coffee Project back to Scotland specifically?
Cameron - Not necessarily to begin with, but there's an old connection between Malawi and Scotland, The Scotland Malawi Partnership. It kind of made sense to come here and I think meeting Gemma was the icing on top that made it a smart place to go and that pieced it together. There wasn't a lot of room for thought and it was mostly just following our idea and going with it.
Gemma: It was 2020 when we fell for each other and there was a lot of lockdown time to talk... I was learning about Cameron’s business and he was learning about what I do, and we both just found a mutual love of Scotland. Cameron spent six weeks living in Glasgow and I spent six weeks living in Edinburgh and we met every weekend to work out which city we liked the most and wanted to create a home in.
We are sat in the Gallery Bar here at Summerhall where MF Coffee operates the cafe. Why this location?
Cameron: I mean, Summerhall is incredible. It’s a giant arts Venue and its just the most eccentric place. So if, if we could do anything in here, we'd want to try. For connecting the dots throughout the coffee value chain it was the smart next thing to do and I really did like the kind of hospitality aspect of having the eco lodge, which I never thought I'd say ever again. I think it’s a place where the community feel welcome. You can work here in The Gallery Bar (the cafe I run in the heart of the venue) or you might find an open mic night or another event. It’s nice to be a part of and to provide the space for that.
Gemma: I really like getting as many people through here as possible in a really fun and open way. Connecting the dots of people I already know and respect here in Scotland and introducing friends from other places. I don't have an official role at The Gallery Bar or MF Coffee, but I hang out here and drink a lot of it!
It makes sense as I know you are involved in various organisations - the Edinburgh Arts Festival is one?
Yes, in a much more official way! I am Chair of The Board for the Edinburgh Art Festival. I’m very excited about the programme this August and I'm learning a lot about the practise of care and cultivation in this position...
My passion is access to the arts. I went to drama school from 16 to 18 at a free performing arts school. I traveled an hour and a half every day to get to my college to study theater, and it kind of comes back to that. It's like a bit of a full circle. I've done lots of things. I've done lots of loud, flashy showbusinessy things. Which make for great anecdotes or were a thrill at a time. But my belief in the arts is really, really real. I hopefully can bring some of that experience to it. And Kim McAleese, who's the new director, has a really interesting arts organisation background. Really we just want to be able to open the door so that people from all over Scotland, people from all over the UK and even beyond, like feel like they want to come to Edinburgh in August. Not just for commercial, in your face, obvious activity but also maybe subversive visual art or something much more low key with less people there. This city allows for that, architecturally. It's a fun challenge being a lover of art Edinburgh during August.
And there is Jupiter Art Land to?
Yes, I just had the absolute joy and privilege of creating a role with them last year, which was “Thinker in Residence”. Because I like to think… it made me laugh quite a lot. It makes me feel a bit bashful the idea of what that means. You know? Am I a philosopher? I dunno.
It is really interesting to be in the space of Jupiter Art Land, it is like going to another land. I was writing my new book there, it comes out next year. To have that space and it for it to be only half an hour away from my house is amazing. To be able to walk into an amethyst crystal cave on my lunch break, is pretty, out there, but makes for great inspiration.
Is it good be doing work that you're not just putting out there, you're getting back so much as well?
Well, there is something in there, and I actually feel like in Scotland since being here, there's something special here for us. And for me, because I feel really welcomed with open arms and challenged in the right kind of way at this point in my career and this point in my life. And it could even be like just how beautiful Scotland can be, you know? I love cold water swimming and the beaches here are amazing. I really enjoy great tailoring and how mind blowing the history of tartan is. There is an appreciation, like a classical appreciation for the arts from literature and poetry to theatre.