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By Hemish Dave '20
Back in my home country of Kenya, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the limitations of the nation’s education and healthcare systems. Specifically, rural farmers simply cannot afford to send their children to school or spend money on basic medication because they aren’t compensated enough to live comfortably, even though agriculture accounts for a large portion of Kenya’s gross domestic product.
Most businesses today are driven by the bottom line, seeking to provide consumers with a myriad of options at the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately, this means that those at the bottom of the value chain—those who have the least amount of bargaining power like Kenya’s rural farming population—tend to get side-lined.
I entered graduate school knowing I wanted to make a lasting impact in the African agribusiness space. My connection to this industry and focus on healthcare and education in Africa goes back almost a century. My great-grandfather started the Social Service League in Kenya, a dispensary whose objective was “to prevent and alleviate human suffering amongst communities in Nairobi, without distinction of caste, creed or colour.” Columbia Business School pushed me to think beyond the “what” of business and enabled me to get to the “how” of business, empowering me to think more critically about ethical issues, purposeful leadership, and the future of work in this trade. More specifically, I found myself continually thinking about the same question: Should business leaders continue to drive value that only benefits shareholders?
During the past few months in lockdown, I’ve thought a lot about that dilemma and, in response to it, I launched Boda Coffee, a venture that twice placed second as part of The Tamer Center’s social venture pitch competition (see Hemish’s pitch at 41:44 timestamp). A direct-to-consumer coffee company that sells premium specialty coffee from Africa, Boda Coffee works with farmers to sustainably source their beans and supply them to the U.S. market, the largest consumer of coffee in the world. Our goal is to compensate these farmers fairly and contribute to their social welfare by supporting local health centers and education programs with every purchase.
Currently, for every $2.50 spent on a cup of coffee, farmers receive mere cents on the dollar—barely enough to support a family. Most of the margins are retained by roasters, who are far removed and not incentivized to improve lives within the farming communities, although their marketing campaigns paint a very different picture. This injustice has driven me to build a blockchain solution that provides full transparency from bean to cup. We will provide our farmer-partners in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia and throughout the rest of Africa a more direct route to market fair-trade premium coffee in the U.S., ensuring farmers are fairly compensated in a way that is fully traceable by consumers.
I have spent a number of years with rural coffee farmers in East and Central Africa understanding their farming practices and giving post-harvest advice that has helped increase their crop quality and yield. This relationship with the farming communities fostered deeper interest in the business and was a key reason why I was nominated to the position of Vice President of the Uganda Coffee Federation, a parastatal whose mission is to grow and drive sustainable coffee production and trade in Uganda. One of my biggest successes in this role, which has truly benefitted the new enterprise, was driving public-private polices to better align interests between various stakeholders in the Ugandan coffee industry. This passion has pushed me to create a company that operates purposefully and exists to serve all stakeholders—from farmers to consumers—while my experiences at CBS have taught me to map out how my decisions affect the players in our value chain.
In 1929, my great grandfather was awarded an MBE (Member of The Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire) for his efforts to bring healthcare to less privileged areas in Nairobi. I hope that my story with Boda Coffee continues his legacy and inspires the success of other enterprises to create value in developing truly fair and sustainable businesses, leading to better outcomes for all.