Vava Coffee Vava Angwenyi

Vava Angwenyi

Vava Coffee

Positive Social Disruption

“For me, there’s no point being in this industry if I’m not really trying to do something different to create a more sustainable supply chain.”

Vava Coffee is a Kenyan, female-owned social enterprise which roasts and exports coffee as well as consults on coffee value chains with the ultimate goal of shifting the power imbalance in favor of coffee farmers. 

Vava Angwenyi, founder of the company is also the author of Coffee Milk Blood and was a member of the SCA board from 2019 to 2020. Her mission is to challenge the status quo of our industry and to build leadership capacity within coffee communities with a special focus on women and youth. Vava’s unwavering commitment to her values and her fearless courage to challenge the status quo, even if it causes discomfort, serve as a powerful source of inspiration for creating profound and lasting change.

Of the coffee communities that Vava works with, two stand as demonstrating how gender equity, training, and diversification can enhance agricultural sustainability, empower women, and improve community livelihoods in Kenya.

Mukuyuni Farmers Cooperative Society, founded over 25 years ago, uses organic farming practices, is FairTrade certified, and it’s members are actively involved in training and management. Despite a larger male membership, the management board comprises at least half women. The cooperative, named after the Mukuyuni River in Kenya, practices crop diversification including coffee, figs, flowers, honey, cattle, and chicken hatcheries.

Similarly, the Kapkiyai Farmers Cooperative Society Women’s Group has transitioned from a male-dominated membership to actively involving women in decision-making and profit-sharing. Supported by the Coffee Initiative since 2012, the cooperative embraced women’s contributions to coffee production, leading to increased productivity, quality, and becoming the first Fairtrade-certified women-only coffee in the region.

Leaving home to return

Vava explains that in Kenyan culture, there’s an unspoken expectation for children who have the opportunity to go overseas to study (at least two degrees) and work until they are stable and want to settle down. So, when Vava was just 16, she ventured to Canada, unaware it would lead her right back to Kenya through coffee.

Kenya is the third largest coffee producer by volume in Africa. It has been a major player in the coffee industry since the British colonized the country in 1895 and an estimated 6 million Kenyans are employed directly or indirectly in the coffee industry today. So, for many Kenyans, coffee cultivation is so ingrained in everyday life that most don’t pay the beverage special attention. 

Although domestic coffee consumption has risen in the past few years along with a growing middle class, there is still a predominant tea preference left over from British colonial rule and limited purchasing power continues to restrict coffee consumption, favoring export.

“Of course, I have family that grows coffee,” Vava explains “My grandmother grows coffee. We’ve got coffee farms in the family, but I was never interested in the production side until I started drinking it when I was in Canada as a student.”

“North American culture, you know, the lifestyle is go, go, go 24-7. So I was a student and needing caffeine and then spending lots of time in libraries. So coffee became my friend and then I got curious.” 

Her first degree being in Actuarial Science and Statistics at Western University, it didn’t take long for Vava to connect the dots and realize that something didn’t add up in terms of supply and demand. She couldn’t help but notice the lack of information about producers on the bags and reconcile the high prices at cafes, while back home, her family was grappling with the ups and downs of coffee farming. That’s when she decided something needed to change.

During graduate school at the University of Groningen, Vava pursued majors in International Finance and Management. Here she seized the opportunity to explore Risk Analysis and Derivatives for her thesis, initially proposing alternative trading models for Kenyan coffee producers as her research topic. Though this endeavor didn’t materialize as planned, her determination to return home and collaborate with coffee producers endured.

Upon her return to Kenya, despite her family’s reservations about her departure from the conventional path, Vava promptly rallied a group of students from Strathmore University to gather data and delve into the grassroots issues Kenyan producers were facing. Whilst juggling a teaching job at a local university, Vava devoted all of her spare time to coffee research and laying the groundwork for her enterprise, which would later evolve into Vava Coffee.

Guided by curiosity, pushed by passion

Vava Coffee was officially set up in 2009. With no financial backing, relying solely on support from friends, Vava and her team of students ventured out to farms in Central Kenya, slowly piecing together their business plan – gathering data, showcasing the problem, and seeking solutions.

Growers responded to the initiative with curiosity and excitement. With a brutal cycle of price drops while other parts of the industry were thriving, everyone was looking for solutions.

“So the moment farmers saw someone on the ground genuinely interested in the issues and wanting to find a better market, they were eager to listen,” she explains

At first a lot of investment went into building trust, engaging with these producers about solutions and helping them to understand how importers work.

“You cannot have a supply chain where importers are talking about things that farmers don’t even understand. Cup score, what is that? In Kenya, people use different terminologies to grade coffee like AA, P1 etc., and then you’re telling a farmer you want a coffee that scores 88?”

“But then there’s a lot of hurdles we were jumping as well. One being that I’m a black female, because typically farmers would think that solutions come from white people that are not female. It’s usually like a male white guy who shows up saying, I want to buy the coffee”

Some of the early wins for her included the curiosity she helped instill in the communities where she worked. There was a newfound market awareness among these farmers and they began actively seeking out individuals like herself who are committed to sharing their stories, offering fair prices, and securing reliable clients outside of the auction system.

Despite skepticism from others and the uphill battle of securing export capital, Vava persisted. As she acknowledges, entrepreneurship is no walk in the park, stating, “It’s really not for the faint of heart because there’s so many days that doubt fills you. There are so many days you cannot do things. Things are moving, but not at your pace…

There are so many days that there’s obstacles and feel like you’re in a system that doesn’t work for you. Even today, I know the system is not set up for people like me to succeed.” 

How has she made it through those years? By developing a “a sense of confidence which is unshatterable.” Vava has a strong sense of purpose as a person and in her company and through continuous reflection and learning from every setback, she has emerged as an extremely strong brand that speaks for itself. 

Youth empowerment

Like many coffee-growing regions worldwide, there’s a persistent issue in Kenya of young people leaving their rural communities for job opportunities in nearby towns because they often lack access to land ownership, training, and financial resources.

Outside of her exporting business, Vava aims to combat this trend by empowering youth through practical and technical training, envisioning a more sustainable future for the coffee industry overall.

“One of my greatest passions is giving back to the next generation. I want to ensure that we have capable individuals ready to take the reins of the industry when the time comes. I know firsthand how challenging it can be to navigate this industry as a young person, often facing dismissal and not being taken seriously. You have to fight your way in and prove yourself. I hope we can set an example for the next generation, showing them that they belong and that there’s a place for them in the world of coffee.”

One initiative she is involved in is, Gente Del Futuro, a partnership spanning multiple countries, addressing issues of producer profitability and youth engagement. Through educational outreach and workshops on agricultural and financial best practices, they strive to equip the younger generation with the knowledge and confidence needed to thrive in coffee production or trade careers.

An example of their work is the establishment of La Dulce Toro, a coffee school and community center in Lamu. Lamu is a seaside town in Kenya known to be the cradle of Swahili civilization which is still strong in its traditions today, but now also relies on tourism. In thinking about the way origin trips have traditionally occurred, with little to no benefit for the producer, Vava asked herself how Kenyans could gain, how the culture of extractive origin trips can be changed?

Therefore La Dulce Toro is not only for education and employment of Lamu youth but a way for buyers and coffee professionals visiting the country to give back.  Now a two-way exchange of knowledge, those who visit Nairobi on buying trips, also go to Lamu to teach a course or contribute to the community in some other meaningful way.

Fusing her passion for coffee and social impact, Vava has successfully created a model which through international partnership empowers local youth to pursue careers in coffee nationally or internationally. 

Willingness yet resistance

Throughout our conversation Vava highlights the extreme unbalance of power in the supply chain and the imminent need to listen to communities on the ground. 

In the wider specialty coffee community we see there is a willingness to change and be part of a better system but such willingness has been met with equal, if not more powerful resistance. 

Significant barriers still exist, not just from the consumption side but within origin countries as well. For example, in Kenya certain traditional attitudes exist around gender which meant Vava  was initially disregarded by the men in Kenyan coffee industry until she took a position on the SCA board in 2019.

“That’s why I say success is measured differently in different communities. When finally they see you on an international platform they start digging in to find out – what is she doing differently or what is she doing that’s making people notice her company?

On the part of roasters and importers, financing is the biggest barrier. Many want to work differently but cannot afford the risk and so chose to play it safe. 

“They want to build relationships with producers. They want to market or talk about coffee differently. But when it comes to the dollars that you have to invest to switch it’s a risk.

Yet it only takes a few to shift the scale and encourage others to change. That’s why Vava reminds me that going back to your purpose and remembering why you do what you do is a very important part of business. It takes someone admitting they don’t know everything and are willing to learn and try something new to start change. And if you’ve deviated from your path, how are you going to change?

“Those people who’ve taken chances on me and we’re in relationships now for like four or five years…I’m family to them. They’re family to me. I take care of them when it comes to sourcing coffee.”

Conclusion: After talking with Vava, I’m left with the question of what kind of legacy I want to leave and what impacts I impart both intentionally and unintentionally. As Kenya’s coffee industry faces its future of decentralization, Vava’s leadership, unwavering dedication to challenging norms and ability to inspire discomfort in order to drive meaningful progress will be crucial for the groundwork of a more equitable and prosperous coffee community in Kenya.

Vava Angwenyi

Vava Coffee