In 2015, Zipporah Gatiti EMBA2014 ran a small trial with her grandmother, a coffee farmer in Kenya. Zipporah took some of her coffee beans, cut out the middlemen and sold them at a trade fair in Ireland. Zipporah’s grandmother made double what she would earn in a year with just a tenth of her coffee. “Imagine if I had access to all her coffee, her neighbours’ coffee and their neighbours’ coffee,” says Zipporah.
Her grandmother’s farm was declining because her high-quality produce fetched a pitiful price – and she was not always paid on time. This drove Zipporah to leave a well-paid job behind and set up Taste of Kenya, which aims to build a marketplace connecting coffee growers in Kenya to roasters worldwide. Little by little, she’s simplifying the supply chain.
The “something more” search
Zipporah’s journey for “something more fulfilling” started way before that trial. With an undergraduate degree in computer science, she worked in the booming IT industry for the likes of IBM and Oracle. In 2012, she set up a software management consultancy, selecting the jobs she wanted, and caught the start-up bug. If she could choose her work, why not do something more meaningful?
Zipporah joined London Business School’s (LBS) Executive MBA in 2013. At orientation, she was asked to write her eulogy. “I had a great job at the time but I was getting itchy feet. I wrote, ‘I'm very proud of the opportunities my family gave me. I’d like to use my education to give back to my Kenyan community’.” But she wasn’t sure how.
As part of her LBS experience, Zipporah travelled to Kenya (as well as to India and China, on Global Business Assignments). The trip inspired a change of direction: “I hadn’t been back to my grandmother’s farm in three years. Half of her coffee trees had gone; she’d been forced to plant banana trees to make a living.” Her grandmother couldn’t survive on coffee beans alone.
Simplifying the supply chain
“Kenyan farmers get 1% of the cost of every cup of their coffee drunk worldwide. The other 99% gets stuck in the supply chain,” says Zipporah. In 2014, she returned from her trip to Kenya, joined LBS’s Entrepreneurship Summer School and set to work.
As the problem she was trying to solve centred on inefficiencies in the supply chain, she sought help from Jérémie Gallien, Professor of Management Science and Operations at LBS. In class, she got a taste for the formulas that could help solve the coffee farmers’ problems. Keen to dig a little deeper, she accepted a place on an exchange programme at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University to learn from expert Sunil Chopra. At that point, she committed to the venture and quit her job.
In November 2016, as part of the LBS Incubator, Taste of Kenya won two awards at the MassChallenge Switzerland Awards, receiving 50,000 CHF (£41,374) in prize money. Zipporah says: “Winning both the gold award and the highest impact idea was validation that people believe what I believe: my business can have a real impact.”
She credits the Incubator for offering almost everything a new business needs, as well as a mentorship programme that goes above and beyond: “If having a mentor was the only thing I’d received, it would have been worth it. Mentors are like co-founders. They study your company, help keep you on track and hold you accountable.”
Apart from her family, Zipporah’s biggest supporters are her EMBA classmates. “They tell me how proud they are, which helps on days when it’s tough being a sole founder. Their backgrounds are varied – from lawyers to branding experts – so I can bounce ideas off them.” It’s like free consultancy, she jokes. “They are supporters, they are my friends.”
The EMBA, and the “quiet confidence” it has given Zipporah, is driving her towards realising her vision: that one day her grandmother will fly across the world, enter a shop selling her coffee and taste the coffee she produces for a good price. “I know how to build a strategy, I know how to build a team. When I walk into a room, I have confidence that I can prove my ideas.” And she is.