This interview was originally conducted by Azao, a consulting company dedicated to developing operational solutions to the societal challenges faced by companies. In this interview, Vava Angwenyim, founder of Vava Coffee and co-founder & director of Gente del Futuro talks about the changes she seeks to bring to the Global Coffee industry. The blog was originally published by the L'Observatoire du BoP. You can find the original post here.
Many thanks to Azao and L'Observastoire du BoP for letting us replicate their interview on our website!
Azao: Vava, could you tell us in just a few words what is Vava Coffee?
V-A: Vava Coffee is a direct trade social enterprise based in Kenya with the goal of developing the coffee industry in the region and using coffee as a tool for change in local communities.
Azao: Can you tell us about your past experience and how you came up with the idea of Vava Coffee?
V-A: I got into the coffee sector 10 years ago by pure curiosity with the ambition of creating a hybrid model, a for-profit social enterprise: I believe you can do good through a profitable business. I had no background in agronomy but I knew that I wanted to give back to my community and counter the exploitative phenomenon around the coffee industry. The first purpose of Vava Coffee is to ensure that farmers receive asustainable income and that they produce quality coffee. When I first got interested in the matter, I noticed that here in Kenya the coffee industry wasn’t as developed as in Latin America; whereas we have the resources to do so. That’s when I realized that there was an opportunity to use coffee as a bigger platform. I think that coffee can be a tool to transform communities. Ultimately, I believe that the more communities have access to education, the more progress we can reach. That is why, more than just raising life standards for smallholder farmers, I want to make the industry more inclusive, with a specific focus on youth and women.
Azao: What has been the toughest challenge you’ve had to face so far?
V-A: I would say I have faced two main challenges. The first one revolves around the concept of social enterprise: when I first started, nobody knew what a social enterprise was in Kenya, people would often mistake Vava Coffee for an NGO. I had to define the concept of social enterprise here. The system in Africa is not yet ideal for entrepreneurs, it is still far from supporting us. Even in Kenya I am competing with foreign entrepreneurs that are much more heavily financed than I am. This leads us to the second challenge: entrepreneurship. What can be frustrating at times is that people don’t see the difficulties that lie behind being an entrepreneur. From the outside world, people view me as a representation of success, an over-achiever, as if everything was always running smooth; but they don’t realize how long it has taken me to be where I stand today. Everybody has what it takes to start its own enterprise, you just need a bit of craziness and be ready to apprehend things. Not everything always go as planned. That’s why I believe we should create a safe space for real talks around the topic of entrepreneurship and more specifically about the challenges that it entails (the fear of letting others down, the amount of responsibilities, etc.). In addition, being a woman has made it more difficult to access financial resources because of the prejudices that come with it. It has made raising funds even more complicated than it already is.
Azao: What has been your impact, in Kenya and at international level?
V-A: So far, we have impacted 30 000 farmers in Kenya. We haven’t bought coffee from all of them but we have managed to educate them on the matter. Not only have we raised their living standards but we have changed the local mindset. It’s not only about producing coffee, it’s about making local actors independent, involving more women in local projects, encouraging innovation, using coffee as a vector for education. I can say that we have moved a step ahead despite the challenges concerning the quality of our products, the government’s support and the clients’ expectations. The government of Kenya has strongly supported us by helping with the financing of equipment, facilities, education programs for the youth and women in agriculture. The government has demonstrated that it is listening and that it is willing to help the private sector foster change within the region. Today we are particularly active in both Kenya and Tanzania.
On the larger scale, we have managed to capture the attention of a few international clients. People are looking at how things can be done differently. We have been exporting for 2 years now and deliver our coffee to a great number of foreign countries such as the United States, parts of Scandinavia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Azao: What is the ultimate goal you would like to achieve with Vava Coffee?
V-A: I believe that you have to go beyond your professional project to tackle greater issues like education. That is why we plan on building a lab, a third space dedicated to education, where people can actually learn about coffee, about its production process and everything it entails. On the long term, I might think of opening up a physical store, but for now my heart remains with the farmers. I want to reach as many farmers as possible and continue to develop a close relationship with them. I am currently still looking for more investors, I have the data to prove the project is sustainable and that our model works.
Azao: Lastly, according to you, what makes Vava Coffee so unique ?
V-A: Vava Coffee is unique for its greater purpose of education for all: I want to help the industry become more inclusive and more education-driven for I believe that wide-scale progress can only be achieved through education then and only then will we see behavioural change and a more sustainable coffee industry for all. Lastly, Vava Coffee’s most unique aspect is its personalization of coffee. Most consuming countries have no idea who produced their coffee. I want to share stories in the best way possible. I want to introduce a face behind a cup of coffee. That is why we ran the “101 days of coffee” project on our social media platforms #101daysofcoffee @vavacoffeekenya : telling the story of those behind your coffee and bringing awareness to our consumers about the challenges and humanity behind the industry.