Coffee can be used for catching up with old friends, going on a first date or waking up fully each morning.
However, for Laban Njuguna, Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction CEO, coffee serves a greater two-fold purpose.
“We want to get people in Kenya back into coffee farming as a dignified means of making a living,” Njuguna said.
“We also want to educate consumers about ethical consumption and the luxury of Kenyan coffee.”
Eight to nine years before Zabuni Specialty Coffee opened its doors in central Nebraska, the idea for the business was suggested to Njuguna during a visit to his native Kenya.
While visiting his 105-year-old grandmother, a small time coffee farmer in her own right, Njuguna said a friend asked him why he did not try selling the coffee grown in Kenya.
At the time, Njuguna said, Kenyan coffee farmers were receiving only 15%-20% of the profit from the sale of their coffee in the United States.
“The American coffee market is the best in the world,” Njuguna said. “These farmers could not even break even.”
Njuguna said he continued to research the coffee market and found that Kenya was a favorite origin for coffee vendors, traders and consumers.
“The more I understood the coffee market, the more injustice I found,” Njuguna said.
However, Njuguna did not immediately set about constructing the new business model.
Njuguna said it was not until the topic continued to arise in conversations and a short introduction with local business leaders turned into a three-hour meeting that he realized the change he knew needed to happen could start with him.
“I wanted things to be different for the farmers,” Njuguna said. “I wanted it to be sustainable and give them back ownership of the coffee.”
Njuguna settled on an auction as the most transparent method of selling coffee.
“There is no template for us to work off of,” Njuguna said. “Coffee has been sold the same way for the last 80 years.
“This is all done from scratch to economically empower the farmers and supply a superior quality, fantastic product for all consumers.”
Njuguna said Zabuni is similar to online auction sites such as eBay.
“We do not own the coffee,” Njuguna said. “We simply facilitate the sale of the coffee for the producers.”
Since its launch in November, the Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction in downtown Grand Island, not only has provided Kenyan-grown coffee to the Tri-Cities area, but also has used its platform to educate the area on the importance of ethically sourced consumption.
“When (consumers) find something freshly roasted that is ethically sourced, and I do not use that lightly, that is not for sales, it enhances the whole experience,” Njuguna said. “An informed consumers is an empowered consumer.”
For Zabuni roaster Jacob Watson, the effect is not realized in just one place.
“We are not only making a difference on a global scale, but nationally with roasters and locally by providing luxury coffee to the Tri-Cities,” Watson said. “It affects all three levels — global, national and local.”
Zabuni offers unroasted and freshly roasted specialty Kenyan coffee in store and at its auctions with 80%-85% of the proceeds going back to the producers in Kenya, according to Njuguna.
“For the farmers, it is like getting a 60% raise,” Njuguna said.
Given the positive effect, Njuguna said Zabuni looks to expand its reach.
“Our future goals are to make specialty coffee available to everyone in the United States,” Njuguna said.
However, Zabuni has continued to work to grow its presence in the Tri-Cities area.
“We have started going to farmers markets,” said Cora, Njuguna’s wife. “People’s feedback is that this is the best coffee they have had.”
Njuguna said he also would like to eventually open a Zabuni retail space, but said COVID-19 has delayed the process of growing the new business.
He said that the community has been accepting of the new business and he hopes the community continues to be involved in the process.
“For this to work, we need everyone’s involvement,” Njuguna said. “Keep asking questions about ethical production, recognize the effort of farmers and drink lots of coffee.”