Kenyan entrepreneur defies the odds to grow her own coffee business

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.

Vava Angwenyi

Vava Angwenyi (Picture: Teddy Mitchener)

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.”