Vava Angwenyi: The Rebel Disrupting Kenya’s Coffee Industry

Vava Angwenyi has something of a mutinous streak. As a child raised by traditional African parents, she was expected to toe the line in terms of education, career path, and family prospects. When friends were outside playing, a young Vava was doing extra math problems because being mediocre was never an option.  At great sacrifice, her parents sent her overseas to study for ten years. But by empowering her as they did, they were unwitting accomplices in her decision to turn her back on a career in finance and launch a specialty coffee production social enterprise in Kenya. That capacity to work under immense pressure and be patient during trying times was the driving force behind a personality that loves to upend rules where they don’t seem fair and to strive for a vision no matter how impossible it might seem.

My parents invested a lot in me and were thrown off by my decision, which frankly they thought was crazy. But I felt I got this exposure to make a difference in my home country and Africa more broadly, a continent rich in resources but not properly utilized by its own people for their benefit. The coffee industry is governed by regulations set in the colonial era that do not favour the local farmer. As someone who has always been curious, I questioned this and realized there was an opportunity for a new market player who would disrupt the norm by empowering the community. If we are not lifting up the people who are the backbone of the country, then it’s all a sham. Today, Vava Coffee is setting standards that others seek to emulate so it pays to be a rebel and not play it safe.”

Launched about almost eight years ago, Vava Coffee is a social enterprise that has a network of over 30,000 small-holder farmers in different regions of Kenya. The farmers from whom Vava sources coffee are paid a fair and above-market price for the specialty coffee, ensuring sustainable livelihoods. Moreover, communities and disadvantaged individuals are integrated into the supply chain where possible to create job opportunities, the company also works with women in informal settlements, some who are HIV-positive, who sew cloth pouches for Vava’s Specialty Coffee. The  goal is to provide an opportunity for the marginalized to move out of poverty and take a step towards self-sufficiency.

“I underestimated the importance of a great support system. I never knew how tough this was going to be. Entrepreneurship is such a lonely journey. Friends and family don’t quite get what you are doing so surrounding yourself with allies is critical. All my money has gone into the business. We are profitable now but literally I have lived off miracles at times.

The idea for Vava Coffee began germinating during Vava’s time overseas as a student in Canada, where she was studying actuarial science at the University of Western Ontario, followed by a Masters in Finance and Management from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

“Seeing how Kenyan coffee was perceived both monetarily and in terms of quality, I always wondered why this lucrative market was not benefiting local farmers. International businesses were selling Kenyan coffee at exorbitant prices, but these earning were not being passed down and the sector was rife with inefficiencies. I felt there was a market to pay farmers a decent wage while creating a recognized brand that told their stories, ensuring quality and the traceability of coffee that consumers are seeking.”

Today, the company employs 15 full- and part-time staff and runs an internship program that hosts students from different universities around the world. Farmers consistently seek out Vava’s team over the bigger players because they appreciate the direct-trade model the company practices and support they receive in improving soil quality and farming techniques and achieving organic as well as other certifications that enhance their coffee over others in the market.

But it’s been a really tough journey for Vava who doesn’t shy away from her story, warts and all. As a single mom, she raised two children simultaneously: her daughter and Vava Coffee.

“In the beginning, I was living with my mother and lecturing actuarial science on the side, practically selling one pack of coffee at a time. But it was slow going and my mother, a shareholder, was getting impatient. She cut me loose and told me if I was going to do this, I had to be all in to make it work or else give it up. So life began on a very serious note. It was do or die, but it was good because I was forced to pitch to bigger investors,” Vava says adding with a sigh: “But definitely I underestimated the importance of a great support system. I never knew how tough this was going to be. Entrepreneurship is such a lonely journey. Friends and family don’t quite get what you are doing so surrounding yourself with allies is critical. All my money has gone into the business. We are profitable now but literally I have lived off miracles at times.

And even after almost eight years, the funding challenges continue.

“Getting money out of Kenyan banks is a nightmare, especially as a woman with little-to-no-collateral, and interest rates are prohibitive so we’ve had to turn to other alternatives, raising capital mostly from friends and family. After four years, we started to get comfortable but needed to scale up, which of course required more funding. And today we find ourselves again at a new growth point. The tough times are the cycles when you invest. Buyers take time to get back, there are seasons to deal with … you just have to push through,” Vava emphasizes.

The coming year will indeed be a turning point for the business. In an effort to reach 130,000 farmers by 2018, Vava’s New Year’s resolution is to raise $1 million. She’s working with different resources like the Lelapa Fund an equity crowdfunding platform targeting the African market and other typical and atypical  impact investors such as Kiva, an online resource connecting lenders with entrepreneurs. She’s also working hard to get Vava Coffee into the Starbucks Reserve program, which would be a breakthrough, and is developing partnerships with US-organic supermarket chain Wholefoods as well as Netherlands-based Moyee Coffee and Ally Coffee in South Carolina.

Vava Angwenyi pitches Vava Coffee during the 2016 Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) Investor Showcase at the Recital Hall on August 18, 2016. (Photo credit: Joanne H. Lee/Santa Clara University)

And while she still feels she has far to go, Vava reflects on her success and feels pride.

“I know we’ve made a difference. Last season, we increased farmers’ incomes by 50%. Farmers had given up on coffee and we’ve given them hope. We’ve shown them they can grow beans and be profitable. We’re a long way from doing this on a massive scale, but I’m okay with this slow pace because I know how long it takes and the sacrifices that are needed. As a single mother and business owner, there is no work-life balance. I am trying to stop being so hard on myself when I miss a family engagement, but if I drop the ball at work, bills don’t get paid. Nevertheless, the most important thing for me is my daughter. And I love that she sees me pushing every day, not feeling sorry for myself, and challenging the status quo.”

Vava Angwenyi’s startup tips:
  • Surround yourself with your tribe, not “yes” people, but those who have your interests at heart.
  • Vet investors thoroughly! They need you as much as you need them. Do due diligence on others.
  • Be shrewd in your dealings. In my case, I should have been tougher with the supermarkets in terms of payment terms and relied on contracts rather than handshakes.
  • Somewhere along the line you drop the ball, but don’t judge yourself too harshly or you won’t ever move past it. Learn to live with your imperfections. Every day is a learning moment.
  • Keep a financial journal and learn the importance of budgeting for the business and the household. Extend bootstrapping to your personal life.

6 thoughts on “Vava Angwenyi: The Rebel Disrupting Kenya’s Coffee Industry

  1. Salute your tenacity Vava!! I can allign with your tips though I did not start a business but I tried to help women in few villages to start their own business who were not as tenacious as you. Now I plan to push them more by sharing your story. All the best !!

  2. Excellent job Vava! I come from coffee growing region in Murang’a and the financial plight of farmers from middle men is sad to say the least. With your permission, I would love to connect Murang’a coffee farmers with your program. We are also laying out a program for enabling large groups of producers (farmers cooperatives) to leverage on technology in the value chain, from inputs sourcing to produce marketing, communication information to mobile payments on a SIM Card.

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