Kenyan-born diaspora entrepreneur Laban Njuguna puts smiles on the faces of Kenyan coffee farmers.
The 42-year-old owns and runs Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction, a company that distributes Kenyan coffee in the United States.
Headquartered in Grand Island, Nebraska, Zabuni gives Kenyan farmers direct access to the US coffee market, allowing them to make more cash as opposed to selling to brokers.
The company enables the direct trade of unroasted specialty coffee from Kenyan farmers to American buyers, through online auctions.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of its trade last year, Zabuni formed “Connections Roasting Development” to sell small-batch, locally roasted bags of coffee.
“We wanted to be that bridge that somehow adds value to farmers in Kenya and provides something special to the customers here,” Njuguna told Nebraska Public Media.
Njuguna, who moved to the US as a student, says he wanted to return to Nairobi after completing his studies but things changed after he met his wife Cora Huenefeld at a graduation party in Bellevue. The two married in 2007 and eventually made their home in Aurora.
“I remember asking her: ‘How did you grow up around here? There’s nothing to do.’”
“Today, I think my wife would leave this part of the world before I would. I love it here. For me, Nebraska values, Nebraska Nice, It’s a real thing...Nebraska adopted me,” said Njuguna.
When he moved to the US, Njuguna hauled grain and later started his own trucking company, moving agricultural supplies.
One day, he asked a local coffee shop owner what she knew about Kenyan coffee and she said it was expensive and that the supply is inconsistent. Njuguna wondered why Kenyan coffee was costly while its farmers are so poor.
This is what inspired him to start Zabuni and he received encouragement from his 105-year-old grandmother, who still oversees a coffee farm. “We knew we needed to try something different,” Njuguna says.
In the Zabuni business model, farmers consign their coffee to the company, which ships and stores it in its climate-controlled warehouse, hence eliminating middlemen.
The company then sells the unroasted coffee in bulk by online auctions, or in-person auctions in its conference room. Zabuni only provides a platform for exchange and links buyer and seller.
“We’re kind of like eBay,” Njuguna said.
Njuguna says a 132-pound bag of coffee sell for about $250 to a broker in Kenya, with the farmer getting between 15 to 20 percent of the price. Zabuni sells the same bag for $500 or more, and 80-85 percent of that goes to the farmer.
“That can be life-changing,” he said.