Growing as a community
GDM is a coffee company located in Mbeya, a city in southwestern Tanzania. On the cupping table that Mary, our coffee consultant, had prepared for us, there was a natural coffee of exceptionally high quality, and that was GDM’s coffee. GDM owns a vast coffee plantation, more than 80,000 coffee trees, and a mill in Mbeya. At the mill, they process not only coffee from their own farms, but also coffee purchased from local cooperatives. The annual production volume of the company’s own farms is 1,000 tons, while that of the cooperatives is 2 to 3,000 tons.
GDM is named after its founder, Grivas D Mwangoka. His son, Richard, took over the company in July of 2021 at the age of only 22. When Mary and I visited the mill at GDM, we shook hands with Richard. At the time, I was completely unaware that he was the president of this company.
I talked to Richard to learn more about the company, Mbeya, and his personal life.
How GDM came to be
GDM was founded by Richard’s father, Grievous, in 2000; the company entered the specialty coffee market around 2010 and began operating a mill in 2018.
“When we first started, we were only producing commercial coffee, but when we saw how profitable specialty coffee was, we decided to enter the market. We were already growing specialty coffee quality coffee before entering the market, so we didn’t make any major changes to our growing methods.”
They produce not only specialty coffee, but also other crops such as corn and beans. They also developed their own logistics and construction businesses related to coffee, creating multiple sources of revenue and stabilizing their business. It is through these other ventures where Grievous’ talent as a businessman can be seen.
The bond between producers
GDM is extremely distinctive among Mbeya’s coffee companies.
“I think it’s safe to say that GDM is the only company that is owned and operated by Tanzanians. Other companies are mostly overseas investors and are owned by Europeans or Americans. The big difference between us and the other companies is that we are not just a business. We were and still are coffee producers, so many producers feel close to us and see us as one and the same. In fact, if they have a problem, we help them to solve it. We are bonded together as the same Tanzanians, born and raised in the same region.”
It was a surprise to learn that even though coffee is the main industry in Tanzania, there were very few locally owned coffee companies. Despite the lack of locals in management, GDM was able to grow so much on the strength of its excellent business model and what Richard calls ‘ties with producers’.
In parallel with their business, GDM has been working on social projects that contribute to the development of the community, such as building hospitals and schools, providing toilets for schools, donating desks, and drilling wells. In 2018, GDM built a wet mill in a remote village in order to create jobs for people who want to work but don’t have jobs.
“The reason why we return our profits to the community is because it is essential for us to grow as a community. Tanzania is a developing country, so we need to grow and develop our community and country by ourselves. In fact, even my relatives go to school and go to the hospital. In order to improve the standard of living for us and our country, we must grow as a whole. We can’t grow on our own.”
The more the coffee industry grows, the higher the standard of living for the whole community will be. This is an important value for Richard, but it also shows the significance of GDM, especially as it is run by local Tanzanians and is the driving force behind their own development of their community.
The passing of his father and the future of Tanzania
For Richard, born and raised as the eldest son, following in his father’s footsteps was a form of destiny.
“GDM is a family-run company and I’ve been helping out since I was a child, so I don’t feel like I started working for the company at any particular age. As I grew up, the company grew as well. If you ask anyone about my father’s personality, anyone would tell you that he’s a hard worker. In fact, my father worked so hard, he slept very little.”
His father, Grievous, passed away suddenly in July 2021. It was a car accident. “Can you tell me a little about that time?” Richard held his tongue. It had only been a few months. Of course he couldn’t. But Richard was already looking towards the future and facing his work.
“I never imagined that I would be taking over the company so soon. There are many decisions to be made, and I feel a lot of pressure. Originally, I had planned to study at a graduate school in Italy to learn about coffee and economics, but that’s become difficult now. Now that I am in charge of management, I can’t be away from the company. Having said that, I enjoy the coffee business. Compared to other businesses, it’s simple and highly profitable. And there is already a market for it.”
I am struck by Richard’s strength to overcome a great loss and to be passionate about the work that is now in front of him. Richard also sees hope in the Tanzanian coffee industry.
In contrast to Kenya and Ethiopia, which have developed coffee as an industry from early on, we have always viewed coffee as a mere agricultural product. But in other words, there is a lot of potential for growth. The main concern of coffee producers, including us, is now profitability. Specialty coffee is easy to profit from, so the number of people working on them will increase in the future. There is still a lot of room for growth in the Tanzanian coffee industry.
Listening to Richard’s story made me think about “blood relations”. Nowadays, the world is connected by the Internet, and the concept of nationality and national borders has slowly diminished. On the other hand, the meaning of being born and raised in a place, of being passed on from one generation to the next, never diminishes. Richard has Tanzanian blood in his veins and I have Japanese blood in my veins, and it seems that there are certain tasks that only each of us can do.
Richard, along with Mary and others of his generation, will surely develop the Tanzanian specialty coffee scene. The Tanzanian blood that flows through Richard will continue to drive him to do so.