The University of Western Ontario (UWO) provided international student, Vava Angwenyi, with a world-class education and the inspiration to return home and become a successful entrepreneur.
Five years ago, the Kenyan self-proclaimed “coffee junkie” launched her own business – Vava Coffee – that seeks to empower smallholder coffee farmers, provide employment for HIV-positive women and challenged youth and create a profitable global coffee brand.
Angwenyi, who acknowledges that her frequent trips to Tim Hortons between classes and the Starbucks at the university’s D.B. Weldon Library were the catalyst for embracing the coffee business, will be honoured with the UWO’s Young Alumni Award on September 19.
“This award demonstrates that what I am doing is something that others recognize and believe in as well,” she told Share from her home in Kenya. “Sometimes, you become so caught up in your vision that you lose sight of the stories that others want to tell as well. Receiving an award as meaningful as the one I am getting from my alma mater really shows me that others are on board and that I really am not crazy after all for chasing this dream I had eight years ago.
“My vision for Vava Coffee started as I was completing my studies at the University of Western Ontario and it’s truly a homecoming of the greatest kind to return to where the idea was born. It is in essence connecting the past and present of Vava Coffee and building a future where others will choose to tell their story just as I decided to pursue my dream.”
Graduating from UWO in 2003 with a degree in actuarial science and statistics, Angwenyi completed her Master’s in international finance and management at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands three years later before going back to Kenya to pursue her dream.
She’s looking forward to returning to the Canadian university to accept her award.
“The University of Western Ontario is a school that teaches you how to think and much of that thinking comes from activities far outside the classroom,” said Angwenyi. “It’s a school which rewards diversity, free thought and the ability to truly enjoy one’s education. To this day, I can say that my Western years were the best academic years of my life.”
Such is the high esteem in which Angwenyi holds the university that she has hosted four Western students in the last two years to intern at Vava Coffee through the Ontario Global Edge Program, which offers participants a first-hand opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship and the role of small and medium-sized businesses in a global economy.
Vava Coffee collaborates with nearly 250 smallholder farmers across Kenya to produce coffee. The packaging is done in Kiberia, which is considered Africa’s largest urban slum; women diagnosed as HIV-positive sew the cloth bags for the company’s high-end blends and street kids assemble the packaging from recycled paper products for the company’s other blends. Each Vava Coffee bag is labelled with the name of the Arabica beans and a brief story about the farmer who grew them.
“By bringing people together to share their stories and add a new chapter to the story of coffee, I knew that I could make an impact on both the coffee market as well as the Kenyan communities,” said Angwenyi. “Every aspect of the business from the farmers to the gift bag crafters to the distribution process are all based on benefitting every stakeholder and this shows in the quality of the product. When the farmers are treated well, it will show in their effort to cater to their coffee plants which – down the supply line – will show in the quality of the brewed coffee.”
The company employs eight full-time and five field staff who assist with farmer projects.
Angwenyi has high hopes for the company which the British Broadcasting Corporation program, World Challenge, nominated as one of the top 12 social enterprises worldwide in 2011.
“Compared to the larger competitors, Vava Coffee is still a small player, but with the current growth levels, that status should only give optimism to how quickly we can penetrate the market,” she said.
“Additionally, capturing 10 per cent of the market is not only achievable but foreseeable. With increased awareness, stronger relationships with buyers and international recognition of the brand, Vava Coffee should be able to become a major player in the field with its current organic growth.”
Last December, Angwenyi was named one of Kenya’s top 50 successful and influential business people and in February, her company won a marketing challenge organized by the Fair Trade Organization in conjunction with Progreso International.
Established in 2001, Progreso works with producers and their organizations to improve the income of the coffee and cocoa smallholders and promote the integration of their products in the international market.