More than 100 people gathered in the warehouse of Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction at 220 N. Walnut St. for its grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday.
The international company will bring coffee grown by Kenyan family farmers directly to U.S. consumers.
Among those attending the ceremony were two dozen Kenyan government and business officials and family farmers, according to Laban Njuguna of Grand Island, owner and CEO of Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction.
At the core of the business is giving Kenyan family farmers who grow coffee direct access to U.S. markets. Njuguna said this access will allow the farmers to receive a better price for their coffee. In turn, those better prices will boost the local Kenyan economy and enable the country’s coffee industry to grow as international demand for the product increases.
Once the coffee is shipped directly from Kenya to Zabuni in Grand Island, the green coffee beans are auctioned off to more than 5,200 independent buyers throughout the country. Those local coffee shops roast the green coffee beans for freshly brewed coffee for their customers.
There are about 700,000 small-scale family coffee farms in Kenya. Those farms average 2 to 4 acres in size. Before Njuguna developed the concept of having the farmers directly marketing their coffee to consumers, Kenya’s coffee industry was declining as many farmers could not make a living for their families because of depressed coffee prices. This was at the same time when coffee demand in the U.S. and worldwide was growing, especially for specialty coffee.
According to E Imports, the United States imports more than $4 billion worth of coffee per year.
Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, making the U.S. the leading consumer of coffee in the world. The market Njuguna is targeting is the 31,000 independent coffee shops in the U.S. that have $12 billion in annual sales.
But there were many hurdles that Njuguna had to jump over before Tuesday’s grand opening. There were financial, bureaucratic and political hurdles, as well as many other barriers. But like Kenyan marathon runners (who are the best in the world), Njuguna was in for the long run.
About 80,000 pounds of coffee arrived in Grand Island last week.
“It has been slightly more than two years, but we thank God that we are here now,” Njuguna said. “It has been a learning process. It has been exciting. It has been tough. But it is Cornhusker resilience. We are set for the future and not just for today.”
He said several setbacks had to be maneuvered past along the way.
“We were supposed to launch in July, but the idea was not to get here quick but to get here in the right way,” Njuguna said. “We are now set for the future.”
Speakers from the Kenyan delegation praised Njuguna and spoke of how this will open up new avenues of economic opportunity for the small family coffee farmers and the Kenyan economy. State Sens. Dan Quick and Curt Friesen also spoke at the ceremony, along with Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele.
The ceremony was at Zabuni’s warehouse. The guests were surrounded by bags of Kenya coffee beans that will be auctioned off this week, along with cups of Kenya coffee that showed the quality of the product.
Local developer Ray O’Connor had purchased the old Sears building where Zabuni is located. Sears left Grand Island’s downtown area in 1979 when it moved to the Conestoga Mall. The building sat unused for many years. O’Connor divided it up into sections for the development of Zabuni and other businesses. Where the ceremony took place Tuesday in the basement of the building was once a miniature golf course when Sears occupied the space.
Njuguna said the idea behind Zabuni is supplying the small coffee shop owner who can only afford to buy one of the several 300 pound-plus bags of coffee beans that are shipped to Grand Island from Kenya.
“The idea is to give them the same opportunity for quality coffee and to do the same for the producer,” he said. “If you only produce one quality bag and you want to come here to get into the market, you can do that. This is about enhancing trade, technology and getting a real quality Kenyan coffee product, and in the future, African coffee to the end-user.”
Njuguna said by selling directly to the end-user in the U.S., the small family Kenyan farmers will get a better price for their product and recognition “and not somebody there in the middle claiming that they are the ones that put it together, but the farmer who gets the recognition and who gets paid for their sweat. That is what it is all about.”
He said there is a growing demand among U.S. coffee drinkers and small coffee shop owners that the coffee they drink be “ethically-sourced.”
“A lot of people will pay extra if they know that the producer is benefiting,” Njuguna said.
The excitement among small coffee shops is brewing about Zabuni as Njuguna said much of the coffee that has arrived was already sold before it got to Grand Island.
A prominent partner in getting Zabuni off the ground and running was the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp.
In June, the Grand Island City Council approved a resolution authorizing the city to enter into an economic development agreement with Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction/Sycamore Investments, LLC.
Zabuni Specialty Coffee submitted an LB840 application for a forgivable loan for $100,000 over four years.
According to Dave Taylor, executive director of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp., Zabuni creates economic opportunity in Grand Island. The LB840 funding helped to create 10 new jobs with an hourly wage of $18. Zabuni requested $50,000 for job creation, $25,000 for job training and $25,000 for infrastructure.
Taylor said the LB840 funds will be disbursed incrementally through 2022.
He said his organization has been working with Njuguna for two years to get the project up and running. During that time, Grand Island has hosted several trade delegations from Kenya, and the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp. led a trade mission to Kenya.
He said Zabuni is an excellent example of not only diversifying Grand Island’s economy but also how to strengthen its international ties.
“This is an international business,” Taylor said. “One doesn’t associate Grand Island with coffee.”
But he said when Njuguna approached his organization, he was struck by the native Kenyan’s vision about bringing the coffee of his home country to Grand Island and at the same time helping family farmers, like Njuguna’s 104-year-old grandmother, create a better quality and standard of life by being paid a fair price for the product they grow.
“His vision was to help the Kenya farmer prosper,” Taylor said. “Laban bringing the coffee here from Kenya with the Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction is truly going to change not only coffee from right here now, but for generations to come.”
To learn more about Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction, visit its website at www.zabunicoffee.com.