By Elaine Pirozzi
As ubiquitous as coffee shops may be in the United States, Fabienne Dervain is the owner of what she says is the first coffee shop in all of Ivory Coast. Instant coffee is extremely popular in that country, while consumption of good quality coffee is relatively low, so it’s hardly surprising that coffee shops are rare. But Dervain has plans to change all that, one coffee shop at a time.
Dervain was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and lived there until she was 13 years old. Because of the political tensions and unrest in the country at that time, her parents decided to send her to boarding school in France, and over the next 11 years she also spent time in the United States and the UK. It was while she was working on her Master’s in International Management at Kings College London that she first heard that her mother was closing Couleur Café, the coffee shop she had owned for nearly 12 years.
Named after the Serge Gainsbourg song of the same name, Couleur Café was originally opened by Dervain’s mother in 2000. Unfortunately, in 2012, after successive political crises weakened the business climate in Abidjan, her mother was forced to shutter the business. But the younger Dervain had always loved Couleur Café, and didn’t want to see it close for good. “I thought – I knew – that this coffee shop had real potential. So I made the decision to return to Abidjan and take up the challenge of giving the café a second life. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Asked why she believed that she would be able to make the coffee shop a success, she replies, “As I had lived in Europe and the US for many years, I had been exposed to the coffee culture. And I’ve always been passionate about the food industry and cooking so I saw untapped opportunities.” And so she began making the changes that she believed were necessary to ensure her new business’s success. “I worked with my sister, who’s an interior designer, to redecorate the cafe and create a charming and cozy atmosphere. I also changed the menu, adding more beverages and signature sandwiches.”
Dervain began the reincarnation of Couleur Café with $60,500, made up primarily of personal savings and some contributions from family members. In addition to refurbishing the interior of the café, the money also allowed her to purchase the necessary equipment.
The new Couleur Café officially opened on August 28, 2013. “Looking back, that day was a mixture of adrenaline, stress, and excitement. It was a quite a jump in my professional life. Not only did I have my first real job, but I was my own boss.” Dervain was just 24 years old at the time and knew she had taken on a lot for someone so young. “I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says, “but I never imagined I would be one so early.”
“I definitely think I can be a role model to women. More and more young women in Cote d’Ivoire are daring to start a business. The new generation of women is more confident!”
Unfortunately, being young is not her only challenge. “This can be a very chauvinistic country, and often men minimize a woman’s skills. People tend not to respect you, not to take you seriously . They think you’re an amateur.”
Still, Dervain refuses to allow gender and age discrimination to hold her back. In fact, she hopes her presence will inspire other females to go into business. “I definitely think I can be a role model to women. More and more young women in Côte d’Ivoire are daring to start a business. The new generation of women is more confident!”
Although it hasn’t been easy and she did not meet her financial projections in the first year, the shop has grown. When Dervain started, she had just one employee; she now has six. At this point, all of the profits she makes go directly back into the store, but that hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for expansion.
“I have a big vision for the next five years. I would like to be the Starbucks of Africa.” And knowing that Starbucks is, in fact, opening its flagship store on the continent, located in South Africa, sometime in early 2016, does not concern her. “The fact that Starbucks is opening shows there’s a real market on the continent. And Starbucks will help with the democratization of the coffee shop industry. It can only be helpful for my business, because Couleur Café offers a different experience.”
Moreover, expansion is not her only goal. “I aim to make my loved ones and my country proud. I dared to start my business; I’m here, I’m staying, and I’m growing.”
Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington, DC. She hopes one day to drink coffee at Couleur Café.