GRAND ISLAND — The question rolled around in Laban Njuguna’s mind.
Upend his life to sell Kenyan coffee?
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 Kenyans who struggled to eke out a living from a few acres of coffee trees.
And he knew Nebraska, this place that welcomed him.
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.
In a way, the one-of-a-kind Nebraska business began the day Njuguna (pronounced jo-GO-na) 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 temperature never swings 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.”
When he first moved here, Njuguna hauled grain and then started his own ag trucking company. 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 on online auctions, or in-person auctions in the company conference room.
Zabuni never owns the product, but instead provides the platform for exchange and links buyer and seller.
“We’re kind of like eBay,” Njuguna said.
For farmers, the increase in profit is huge. According to Njuguna, a 132-pound bag of coffee might sell for about $250 in Kenya, with the farmer receiving 20%. Zabuni sells coffee for $500 or more a bag, and 85% of that goes to the farmer.
“That can be life-changing,” he said.
Njuguna has one clear advantage in the Kenyan coffee business: 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.
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 foreign 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.”
The company got plenty of help along the way.
Dave Taylor, president of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp., 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 Nebraska's economic development program set up by LB840. 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 the coffee’s freshness.
Zabuni launched with fanfare late that year, and completed a few online auctions when COVID-19 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 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, giving central Nebraskans a way to support the mission. Buyers include Rise and Grind in Gibbon, which brews Zabuni coffee 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 an underlying connection between his homeland and his new home. Farmers understand farmers, he said. And then there’s the crop itself.
“What better way to bring people together than over coffee?” he asked.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org