Miss Vava Angwenyi woke up and did much more than just smelling the coffee: she decided to earn a living from it.
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The unmarried mother of one, who refers to herself as Chief Coffaholic, owns Vava Coffee, a social enterprise that aims to positively impact local communities and contribute to better future prospects for the 30,000 coffee farmers she works with.
Social enterprise aside, Vava can kick some backside. And that is not a figure of speech. When she swears, “I can kick me some serious backsides ... like that high,” you better believe her. She means every single blatant word.
Ten-plus years ago, Vava, 35, earned a black belt in Taekwondo. So do not let her easy laugh, pretty face or seemingly-harmless “coffee connoisseur” title fool you into trying to jump her.
“At 16 years, I was sent to Canada for my A-Levels, after which I joined Western University,” Vava explains. “My dad used to emphasise that, inasmuch as he wanted us to make straight As, it was not for seeking employment. It was so one could build their own thing. He was anti-employment, although he was a banker.”
That parental counsel rubbed off her, and in 2009, she started Vava Coffee.
Vava’s CV is running out of white space, what with the awards she is chalking up. And Vava Coffee sells their eight roasts to markets in Norway, USA and Netherlands... and the renowned roasts are coming to a retailer near you.
“I studied Actuarial Science and Statistics for my undergrad. I did that painful degree for four years,” she winces. “By the time I was done, I thought I had white hair. It was a stressful four years, but worthwhile because it prepared me for tougher things to come.
“My coffee plan started in Canada, but on the hush-hush,”she laughs. “I was like here, heh; my mum will stop paying fees if she finds out. I came back home in 2003, and did hustles, like selling home-made juice at Parklands Sports Club. In 2004, I went to The Netherlands for my Masters.
“My mum — I call her Iron Lady — kicked my backside: but from a good place. She is now a believer. She even supported me with money when my dream hit a rough patch. She taught us that anything is doable. When my father died in 2000, she held the family together.”
In Vava’s office in Karengata, she serves me coffee without milk. Which makes me ask her why coffee is so expensive in Kenya. She flips the script.
“In Kenyan coffee shops or worldwide? Coffee’s expensive because, mostly, there is no demand for coffee here.
“Plus, it is one of the most-traded commodities worldwide. And Kenyans do not drink coffee. If we had a strong culture for consuming our own coffee, like Ethiopia where there are round-the-clock coffee shindigs, ours would be a different story.”
MEN ARE THREATENED
But this social entrepreneur, whose brochure reads, “Every bean ... a story” starts that journey of gazillion beans right from the soil.
Vava and her crew teach farmers how to improve their soils, using environmentally friendly methods.
“Good coffee starts from the quality of one’s soil,” she says, “and this in turn determines the quality and price cherry.
“We work with smallholder coffee farmers, whose wages we are working to improve. We also do a lot of capacity-building. We are creating a culture where communities are not dependant on handouts. That is a culture that has continued to confine our people to poverty.”
Fundraising is every start-up’s nightmare. And, though Vava has been around this alley enough times, she keeps reliving the nightmares with every round of planning, proposing and pitching.
“Fundraising is one of the hardest tasks. You hear people in Nairobi saying, there is money. Yes, there is money, but it is hard to get.
“At times we undergo due diligence processes from investors, which can take anything from between three to eight months.
“Meanwhile, you have to run your business through bridge financing, angel investors ... anything to keep the wheels turning. This process can take a toll on your life. When you are fundraising, you have got no life.”
What brings Vava life and balance, and relieves her of stress is not a coffee fix. It is not even good whisky — which she knows because of her developed palate — or her love for flowers, or the mean lasagna she cooks. It is yoga, exercise and her six-year-old daughter, Timanoi.
I spring Iron Lady’s daughter a jack-in-the-box.
Has luck been a lady in the relationship department?
How do brothers react when they learn that she is the brains behind the only coffee company owned by a woman in East Africa, if not Africa?
“I think a lot of men are threatened,” Vava is categorical. “Very few men can stand up to a strong opinionated woman. And I think for me, over time, I have definitely earned my stripes.
“I know what seriousness is and I know a man who is not serious. I am very comfortable in my own skin. A lot of men are like, ‘What am I going to do for this woman? She is opinionated. Pays her rent. Doing her own thing. She is a brand. How the hell do you control this one? She is untamable.’”
Vava says relationships are not about how you tame someone, but how you cohesively build a unit that works together. “I have given up on the male situation in this country.”
In one roller banner in Vava’s office, there is a picture of her dressed-down — purple headscarf, oversize jacket, white scarf around her neck — morphing with farmers, smack in the middle of a coffee farm.
It is a far cry from the all made-up Vava that is behind the desk in a fitting red number, jewelry and braided mohawk.
When I jest Vava, while pointing at the banner, telling her Mr Right could be under some Arabica bush, in Ruiru’s red earth, she bursts out laughing.
“The situation with men, and this is not just me talking, I have heard this from other professional women: there are very few men who can stand up to us. And when you are a strong or powerful woman, you need a man who understands that and tones you down.
“When you go home, you also want to take care of someone. Kenyan men are spoiled. I blame it on their mothers who do not kick them out of their houses early so they can fend for themselves.”
Vava’s official title is Chief Coffaholic. She points out that she likes her “coffee black and strong. I am a dark roast coffee drinker. No sugar, no milk”.
Then she clarifies, laughing, that her drink-preference does not mirror her date-preference. Vava’s life is about kicking.
Like, for instance, jump-kicking glass ceilings. She never had a mentor when she was starting out. People did not take her seriously. Others told her that her coffee thing was a hobby. She was called nuts by some men.
“Women hear all kinds of things. I have heard some people say I am being funded by a rich Mzungu. No, I do not have a sponsor.
“Making it in entrepreneurship depends on how you handle stuff. Do not take things to heart. Start wherever.
“I started out with a couple of coffee sacks. I roasted and tasted it myself. And you want to know where I got my initial capital? From three friends, family and fools!
“There are investors, mostly men, who approach women entrepreneurs on the basis of other things.
“Being a woman in this space, you should know how far you are willing to go with some things. I have heard some remarking, ‘You’re beautiful: why are you still looking for money?’ And I am like, puh-lease.”
Many start-ups are fraught with mistakes. Some are basic boo-boos. Others are Himalayan blunders. Vava’s advice to entrepreneurs is they should take caution, but still take risks.
“Why are there so many women selling clothes and shoes? Let’s think outside shoe boxes.
“I read somewhere that being an entrepreneur is like straddling a lion while everyone else is watching. And they are saying how great you are at riding this lion.
“But you’re screaming inside, ‘Oh my God, how do I tame this lion?’ You are freaking out, but people do not see it.”
On the issue of cartels in the black gold sector, Vava has a different perspective. “I would not call them cartels.”
She says the cartel word has been bandied about in reference to multinationals.
“Thing is, these big boys come to Kenya and set up shop with a lot more money and better infrastructure. They have more efficient systems of running things.
“But at the same time, given that coffee is a heavily-regulated crop, it has not left any smallholder farmer any opportunity to be a part of this. I think the frustration is what has led some farmers to uproot their coffee bushes.
“I do not think the Coffee Act favours smallholder farmers. For the longest time, until certain farmers and co-operative socities were allowed to get certain licenses to directly trade, some matters were the preserve of the financial muscled, who controlled the market.”
At the tail end of the interview, I inquire about Vava’s motto. She creases up as she answers. It is not a dictum with the word coffee thrown in for the zing.
It is a get-up-and-go kind of maxim. And it is as pithy a motto as they come: “Get s**t done.”