Brewing social impact and coffee culture in Kenya
Vava Angwenyi is the founder of Vava Coffee, a B Corp certified social enterprise based in Kenya which for the past 10 years has been building the capacities of coffee farmers to produce higher quality coffee and negotiate better prices, as well as facilitating direct relationships with buyers in consuming countries. In addition to export work, Vava Coffee roasts its own coffee for the domestic market to build Kenyan demand for Kenyan coffee.
How did you get the idea to develop coffee markets in Kenya?
Being from this community, it's always been a passion of mine to give back. That’s why I came back to Kenya from Canada. After years of studying outside of the country, I made the tough decision to come back home. It was totally ridiculous to everyone else. They said, "You've been given the opportunity to escape, to leave this place where there are no jobs, no future."
Instead, I thought, "Africa is the place to be. I need to go home and use the expertise I have gained to uplift the communities and teach people how to do things differently." The people in this country—and specifically in this community—have great potential. They just need a little help in certain areas, like a little boost of confidence and someone who believes in them enough to invest in them. So, we decided to invest in the people and the homes where we are from.
How do you positively impact the communities you work with?
We impact coffee communities by providing them opportunities for market access and education. When producers are more knowledgeable about how the market works, fewer of them will be taken advantage of and more will be aggressive in approaching buyers. Our most amazing work has resulted in tripling incomes for some producers, which in turn provides their families with employment opportunities.
We are in a coffee growing country, but since we don't consume a lot of it, we also don't show young people the many careers that are available to them in the coffee sector. We are trying to establish a local coffee drinking culture to provide employment opportunities for young people. At our training facility a young person can learn skills as a barista and get a job anywhere. When they are licensed as a ‘Q Grader’ or ‘cupper,’ they can go work for other coffee companies. They can learn to be a trader and work for coffee trading houses. With these skills they could even start their own businesses.
Why is it important for you to have a profitable business model when you are trying to do good and support the community?
Without generating profit we would be on the road to unsustainability. We can't depend on handouts or grants or gifts that come when they come. By generating profits we are able to be sustainable as a company and ultimately help more people. I also believe that in today's world, no matter how capitalistic you are, you must have a social element to your business. If you are operating in a community whose resources you are utilising, it only makes sense that should give back to that community in some way. One way of doing that is employment opportunities, but another is generating money that can circulate within that community and create more opportunities. It will help your business in the end, too.
What is your vision for the future, both in terms of impacting the community and your own aspirations as an entrepreneur?
Investors can be a bit dreamy about how much impact you can have without the right kind of funding. Sometimes they give you limited resources and expect you to work miracles. Sometimes they don’t know your industry and don't understand the challenges you encounter as an entrepreneur. Impact investors need to be patient and work with us entrepreneurs. Running a social enterprise in an environment like Kenya is tough because it is a highly profit-driven country; as a nice person who wants to do good, sometimes people don't have patience for me.
Based on my experience, I would like the environment to improve for young people who run businesses. It's a very tough space for women and young people who want to pursue entrepreneurship. A lot of this stems from the culture that we grew up in as Africans, where we are challenged to get a job to support the rest of the family—a good job. What is a good job? It's being a lawyer, a doctor or the boss at a bank. Having a respectable job where you are not struggling, hustling and having problems every day—that is considered a good job.
Another reason that the business environment for social enterprises is challenging here is because a lack of support resources and credit facilities available to entrepreneurs. In other markets like the U.S. and parts of Europe, an entrepreneur can go to the small business administration office and get a loan. In this market either you have collateral, or you don't. Or you get money from your friends or family and you are lucky if they give you money.
Entrepreneurs also need better support systems in another way. There are mental health issues that people here don't talk about like depression. Over time I have found support systems and small circles where we actually share openly about our challenges. Finding like-minded people and a good support system that listens has helped me—and my friends and colleagues—grow.
Entrepreneurship takes time. People take note when they see you winning awards and achieving certifications that they never thought you would get. They will think you just did it overnight; really, it might have taken ten years. Instead, at night you were worrying about payroll, worrying about rent, worrying about a shipment that has been stuck in a warehouse, worrying about the next harvest, worrying about your farmers…
But I would not exchange the life I've had the last couple of years for having any of those “respectable” jobs, because, while unpredictable, I think life is exciting on this side.
What challenges do you face as a female entrepreneur in Kenya?
The coffee sector is very patriarchal. It's a man's world. To be heard, I couldn’t always care about what people thought. I had to be aggressive, which for a woman, leads people to think you are a crazy person who wants to have your way with things. But by knowing my stuff and having the confidence to speak up, people started to notice that I am someone they can't push around. It is essential that men come into the fold and realise how to support and work with women. Women, too, must be one another’s greatest advocates. Changing a patriarchal system is tough work, but more joint conversations and giving everyone a seat at the table is the way to go.