GRAND ISLAND — The question rolled around in Laban Njuguna’s mind long before he took action.
Upend his life to sell Kenyan coffee? In Nebraska?
He daydreamed about the idea as he hauled grain for farmers in the Grand Island area. It spilled out in long late-night conversations with his wife, Cora.
Friends and family grew coffee in his native Kenya. He lived in the United States, the largest consumer of coffee in the world.
Njuguna’s logical side told him that he knew nothing about the coffee industry, much less international trade.
But his heart spoke up, too. He knew Kenya. He knew people there who struggled to eke out a living from a few acres of coffee trees.
And he knew Nebraska, this place that welcomed and adopted him.
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Ultimately, one thought spoke loudest:
What if I can be a bridge, doing good for both places?
Today, that bridge is Zabuni Specialty Coffee Auction, a Grand Island company distributing Kenyan coffee in the United States. It’s guided by a mission to provide Kenyan farmers direct access to the U.S. coffee market, allowing many to earn a living income for the first time.
Zabuni enables the direct trade of unroasted specialty coffee from Kenyan farmers to American buyers, connecting them through online auctions.
After COVID shut down much of their trade, the business also 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 said of the company he and Cora founded.
In a way, the one-of-a-kind Nebraska coffee business began the day Njuguna bumped into Cora Huenefeld at a graduation party in Bellevue.
Cora was a high-school math teacher in Omaha. Njuguna was an immigrant pursuing an education, as his older siblings had done.
He intended to return home to Nairobi, the lush, hilly, capital city of Kenya where he grew up. A city that boasts 4.4 million residents and incredible weather — the daily high temperatures never swing too far from 75 degrees.
Instead, he went to the party, where Cora caught his eye.
They married in 2007 and eventually made their home in Aurora, miles from the farm where she grew up.
Instead of Nairobi, Njuguna made a life in Nebraska.
Now 42, sitting in his office overlooking downtown Grand Island, Njuguna swivels his chair to face Cora with a mischievous look. “I remember asking her: ‘How did you grow up around here? There’s nothing to do.’”
He was a big city guy, at ease among crowds of people and hair-raising traffic.
“…But, a caveat,” he adds, holding up his index finger. “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.”
When he first moved here, Njuguna hauled grain and then started his own trucking company moving agricultural supplies. One day, he asked a local coffee shop owner what she knew about his home country’s crop.
“It’s expensive,” she said. “The supply is inconsistent.”
He wondered: Why is Kenyan coffee so costly while its farmers are so poor? His eyes saw injustice in the historical structure of the industry, “a supply chain stacked against the farmers.”
Words of encouragement from Njuguna’s 105-year-old grandmother — who still oversees a coffee farm — helped convince the Njugunas to start their unique, mission-based company. “We knew we needed to try something different,” Njuguna said.
In the Zabuni business model, farmers consign their coffee to the company, which ships and stores it in its climate-controlled warehouse, cutting out layers of middlemen. Zabuni then sells the unroasted coffee in bulk by online auctions, or in-person auctions in the company conference room.
“We’re kind of like eBay,” Njuguna said. “We provide the platform for exchange, but we don’t own the product. It creates transparency, linking the buyer and seller.”
For farmers, the increase in profit is huge. According to Njuguna, a 132-pound bag of coffee might sell for about $250 to a broker in Kenya, with the farmer receiving roughly 15-20 percent of the price. Zabuni sells coffee for $500 or more a bag, and 80-85 percent of that goes to the farmer.
“That can be life-changing,” he said.
Njuguna travels to Kenya with his staff a few times a year, working with farmers and local coffee cooperatives. Njuguna chose two co-ops as a starting point, and worked to gain the trust of local farmers and politicians.
He had one clear advantage: Although he grew up middle class, he has coffee farmers in his family. He knows the hardships of that life: Working tiny non-mechanized farms, usually only a handful of acres; picking, drying, and sorting the fruit of the coffee trees by hand; delivering the harvest to the mill.
Their painstaking labor and the region’s altitude create Kenyan coffee’s prized taste, he said, known for its brightness and the fruity, floral tastes and scents.
Bad Seed Coffee and Supply in Omaha was already serving Kenyan coffee from an importer in California when its owner, Matt McCrary, met Njuguna. McCrary wanted to work closer with foriegn farmers, but didn’t think Bad Seed was big enough. “When he shared a little about his plan, I got really excited. He was bringing my barista dreams to my doorstep.”
When McCrary visited Zabuni’s warehouse for the first time, its size brought home the magnitude of the undertaking. “…You start to think about how far away these places are and the reality of what is at stake.”
Not everyone Njuguna meets in the industry becomes a fan. Zabuni’s method draws criticism from people in the supply chain who feel they are losing value. “You have to have pretty tough skin. But I love this industry. Its passion is infectious.”
Without passion and support, Zabuni wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. The company received “divine help at times,” Njuguna said, from unexpected connections made with local economic leaders and business owners.
Dave Taylor, president of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corporation, was one of those connections.
“They didn’t have all the tools they needed in place, but Laban’s passion was so easy to feel and understand,” Taylor said of their first meeting.
Taylor eventually traveled with Njuguna to Kenya, to learn and to help build relationships crucial to the venture. When Kenyan visitors came to Grand Island, local businesses offered special rates to house and feed them, and showed them the area, he said.
In 2019, Zabuni received a $100,000 forgivable loan using the LB840 economic development program. Company headquarters took shape downtown, in part of a former Sears building transformed into brightly colored offices, a cupping room, lab and conference room, with a food-registered warehouse beneath. Clean and cavernous, the warehouse can keep thousands of bags at the temperature and humidity that retain coffee’s freshness.
Zabuni launched with fanfare late that year. It had only completed a few online auctions when COVID changed everything. The roasters who make up their primary customer base weren’t traveling; coffee shops closed doors.
By then, the couple had four young children, three boys and a girl, whose faces burst from a gallery of 16 black-and-white photo frames on Njuguna’s office wall. His own mother, Jane Murugi Maina, offered serious support during that tough year. “She kept telling me ‘No matter what. Don’t give up.”
His mother died of colon cancer over the summer.
“So for me, those words are eternal.”
The Njugunas began selling roasted coffee, which wasn’t in their business plan. Sales of individual bags exploded locally and grew from there. It gave central Nebraskans and small businesses a way to enjoy the coffee and support the mission. Buyers include Rise and Grind in Gibbon, which brews Zabuni coffees for its customers.
“I like their philosophy and entrepreneurship,” said owner Scott Pickel.
Central Nebraska farmers have been among Zabuni’s biggest advocates, including Cora’s family of organic popcorn growers.
That’s the underlying connection between his homeland and his new home. Farmers understand farmers, he said.
And then, of course, there’s the crop itself.
“What better way to bring people together than over coffee?” he asked.
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