For the last four years, and despite many challenges and little support from the people around her, Kenyan Vava Angwenyi has dedicated her time and energy to building her own coffee company, Vava Coffee.
For a long time colleagues in the industry did not take her seriously and assumed she would give up the ‘hobby’ after a few months and get a ‘proper job’. Friends and family too did not approve of her decision not to find formal employment.
Angwenyi completed a degree in actuarial science and statistics at a Canadian institution and a master’s in international finance and management from a university in the Netherlands.
It was while studying in Canada that she began questioning how the international coffee trade operates. She struggled to understand why coffee farmers in Kenya were poor.
She began thinking of ways to empower smallholder coffee farmers and encourage the value addition of coffee in Kenya, which has traditionally been done in the West.
“I wanted Kenyans to know that we are good enough to brand our own coffee, market it, sell it and keep the profits here,” said Angwenyi. “We need to stop selling green beans. Let’s stop selling ourselves short.”
When Angwenyi completed her studies she decided to return to Kenya and start her own business. “Employment was never my cup of tea. I never really tried it. I just went straight into running a business and everyone thought I was crazy,” she said.
Angwenyi convinced investors to support the business, but they pulled out before Vava Coffee products went to market. However, this did not deter her.
To stand out from the competition of more established brands, Angwenyi designed packaging that captures the stories of coffee farmers to appeal to customers who have an interest in ethical and sustainable business models.
She also works with groups of vulnerable women and young people throughout the value addition chain.
“I wanted to create a product that had a real story behind it and that tapped into the emotions of people. My packaging had small story cards of each of the farmers I had met on the ground.”
The packaging also offers tasting notes and advice on how and when to drink the different coffee varieties. “I wanted to take coffee to the level of wine,” Angwenyi said.
Vava Coffee is sold at local supermarkets, Kenyan airports and local specialty stores. The company also sells to NGOs and corporate firms. Vava Coffee packages coffee from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Malawi.
Facing the challenges
Angwenyi’s goal is to empower farmers and other players in the coffee production chain, but her journey has been characterised by many challenges.
Getting investors to finance the business is one of the struggles. Although Angwenyi has “courted several potential investors” both locally and abroad, no deals have been made.
“I have even gotten calls from as far as New York. They hounded me for weeks and [as soon as] I explained the company, they said: ‘You are small.’ Why is the feedback always that I am too small and I need to scale up for them to jump in? By the time I become big, I won’t need [investors].”
She has also suffered from undercutting in the coffee business where competitors use family relations to score deals.
“This business is cut-throat. There have been instances where I thought the deal was done and from nowhere they (clients) don’t want to hear about Vava anymore. But I will not let it end there. I will be persistent because I know I have a better product.”
Angwenyi said there are misconceptions about the coffee business. “Every time you mention coffee to anyone in this country they think you are rolling in money. Sometimes people look at me and question whether I really know how to pack coffee.”
Despite these challenges, Angwenyi finds motivation in the positive customer reviews she receives and her passion for the business.
“It’s the passion. I have fought many battles. We live in a society where women are looked down upon but I have developed a very tough skin. Every time I talk to someone who is on the same page as me, I get reassured that one day I will execute our long-term vision.”
Angwenyi said “being viewed as an underdog” by her male compatriots in the industry has worked to her advantage. In 2011, Vava Coffee was a finalist in the BBC World Challenge, which encouraged her to persist when her friends and family were telling her to quit.
“That made more affirmation not just to me but to family and friends who doubted for the longest time. People thought I had lost [my mind] long ago. For the longest time I was the errand person in my home because people assumed I had free time.”
Angwenyi finds inspiration from the success story of Ugandan entrepreneur Andrew Rugasira who has been in the coffee industry for many years and went through most of the challenges she now faces.
To be an entrepreneur, Angwenyi argued, one needs to be defiant and go against society’s expectations.
“You need some sort of crazy in you. You need to believe in yourself no matter what people tell you. There are lots of people who are not risk takers and the naysayers are the people who always discourage you.”
She added that entrepreneurship comes with a price and one must be prepared to make lots of sacrifices.
“Most people run away from high risk individuals. They will run. [People] will get tired of you. An entrepreneur needs to have that feeling you get when you go bungee jumping and you know you are not going to die. It is free falling, but something is going to catch you,” Angwenyi said.
Angwenyi advises entrepreneurs to build a team of people they can trust, treat promises with a touch of scepticism and be careful about divulging company secrets. They should also protect their intellectual property by getting patent and copyright.
“You also need to be patient and resilient. Don’t give up.”
Angwenyi has big plans for her business, including expanding the market reach and opening a coffeehouse.
“I want to have my products on shelves in the US and Europe. I also want to be the voice that speaks for dreamers. There are not many dreamers in Africa who are willing to take the risk. People dream and then squash their dreams and sweep them under the carpet.”
Despite the difficulties in business, Angwenyi hopes to inspire the youth and women across Africa to venture into entrepreneurship and not “settle for the comforts of a nine-to-five job”.
“I want to encourage young people to take a leap of faith and be risk takers especially when they have had the advantage of a good academic background. Why won’t you follow your passion and make a business out of it? It is tough, yes, but it is worth it.