ACCRA, GHANA — In between her CFO duties at Impact Hub Accra, Emi-Beth Quantson makes time to supervise a small staff of women as they brew cups of coffee and transform fresh fruits into ice-cold smoothies for the hub’s regular assortment of entrepreneurs, startup teams and local tech-scene networkers as part of Kawa Moka.
As founder of Kawa Moka, Quantson says she is building a ‘social enterprise coffee shop’ that will provide employment and support for women who may find themselves excluded from Accra’s mainstream economies. Only a few months after launching her business, Quantson has already won the 2015 Ghana StartUp Cup at Ghana’s National StartUp Festival, earning her a space in the upcoming African Startup Cup challenge.
As part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, I caught up with Quanatson at her first pop-up shop to talk coffee, chocolate, women in business, the not-so-glorious moments of starting her own company and the future of Kawa Moka.
(EO) Coffee, chocolate and women. Three very different components yet you’ve managed to make a social enterprise of it. What was your mission at the outset?
(EBQ) When I was in Ashesi University in my final year, I wrote my thesis based on a coffee shop. And I actually implemented the thesis. Looking back it wasn’t a coffee shop because I wasn’t as invested in coffee then as I am now and I couldn’t afford to buy the machines. It was more of a canteen where students could hang out and where we had events. I ran that for two years and I loved it and then I got into finance. It was great to work with very intelligent people but I always kept on saying I wanted to do more. It wasn’t just enough to save people some tax dollars. I wanted to have more impact. It was one of the hardest situations I found myself in because I was on a high at that point in my career, the only way was up so to leave to start my business was scary. So when I left PwC, I then had to figure out how to start my business. To transition into the entrepreneurship world, I started consulting with Impact Business Leaders which was what gave me the idea on social entrepreneurship because I had not really considered it before. I bought into the concept of integrating impact into your business model and that’s how working with disadvantaged women came in. It happened to be a natural fit because my mom does a lot of work with Legal Aid.
(EO) Where’s your business now?
(EBQ) We’ve had many milestones. One, we found a location which was one of our biggest struggles because rent is ridiculously high and it’s hard dealing with landlords. There was one occasion where I got kicked out of the space I was looking to rent because a big multinational company wanted the space. Landlords prefer a known brand than a startup who may not be able to pay rent in three months. Impact Hub is a great space because there’s so much synergy in this building with entrepreneurs and it feeds into the idea that I have for Kawa Moka. It’s also great to be here because it gives us leeway to experiment with products and see what people like. And we’ve also had the chance to identify people in this space who are connected with the type of women we want to work with. One group, Leading Ladies, were able to connect us with a group of young women coming out of SHS who come from poor backgrounds but are fantastic all-rounders and it’s been great working with them. We got our coffee machine, we’ve made enough money to buy a new stove and people love our burgers and waffles so it’s all been a great confirmation of the work we’ve been doing behind the scenes to develop our products.
(EO) Where do your coffee beans and chocolate come from?
(EBQ) Our coffee beans are from Ethiopia and Kenya. We haven’t actually started selling our chocolate products yet but we are developing unique chocolate recipes using Ghanaian cocoa.
(EO) Having been in the world of finance for 7 years, you were well aware of the funding challenges startups often face. What creative strategies did you use to get Kawa Moka to where it is now?
(EBQ) Everybody always says they need money to start out but for me I challenged myself by asking how do I start without money? You’ll be surprised by the kind of ideas you come up with. The truth is as a startup you can go crazy and spend a whole lot of money but then when you have little money you think carefully about whether the expenditure is justified and whether it takes the customer’s preferences into consideration. But money is still important. A lot of the money we’ve got so far has been organic so just from selling our products. And we’ve also been running a lean structure. We started with one person.
(EO) Kawa Moka seeks to empower disadvantaged women through employment. Each woman however has their own story and set of challenges they’ve faced before coming to work with you. This can be complex to deal with. To what degree do you allow this to ‘steer your ship’ and at what point do you say ‘let’s make some sales’?
(EBQ) It’s really a struggle because you want to be able to help the women with their problems and pay them well but also work with what you have as a startup. And one thing I’ve discovered is that catering is a real calling. It involves long hours, standing on your feet and you have to cook with love. We’ve been through a period where we were naive enough to believe we can just go out there and pick anybody, place them in our kitchen and everything will be perfect. We’ve now reached a point where we’ve refined our business model to say how do we build these women up for management positions before integrating them into the business? And even if they’re not working in our kitchens, how can they fit into the working force? Training and mentorship is key and we think it’s the best way of giving these women a sustainable form of support.
(EO) How do you find the women you work with?
(EBQ) One category of women we work with is abused women and we are partnering with a local shelter that supports them.
(EO) Paint a picture of the Kawa Moka coffee shop. Apart from great coffee, what’s there to eat, what will your customers see, what will they hear, who will they meet, what will inspire them?
(EBQ) Kawa Moka would be on a high traffic street. It’s going to be a very African-inspired space with a lot of artwork and warm, earthy colors so you’re talking about your browns with a splash of color here and there. We want you to come in and leave your worries outside the door and just be yourself, because that’s good enough. There’s a little something here for everyone. You can have your flavored coffee and your hot chocolates, or a brownie and some ice cream. And if you’re really hungry, you can have one of our burgers like Abrofosem. We are also developing health-conscious menu so you can go for a vegan burger. You might be able to sit next to Mahama who’d be sipping a cup of coffee on a random day or you might be able to chat with Asa from Lagos who is about to play for the night. Or there might be a successful African businessman who’s passing through and sharing his experience in the nice, cozy space. That’s us.
(EO) Kawa Moka is growing pretty quickly. Do you have any concerns about your company at the moment and how are you dealing with them?
(EBQ) We have concerns with distancing ourselves from the traditional coffee shop model. We’ve also been thinking about how we can create the type of ambiance we envision without having to splurge money on a big space and so far this pop-up model works so that might be something we will continue to expand on even when we have our own space. And we have to keep to our theme of giving back in whatever it is that we do.
(EO) You had several ideas in mind when you first started. What is your advice to a budding entrepreneur who thinks they’ve got one too many ideas? Take on the challenge or scale down?
(EBQ) As startups we try to do everything and I am really learning to say ‘no’, not because I don’t want to take up a challenge but because of clarity of vision. Too many ideas sometimes means spreading yourself too thin and then you lose depth, the depth to make an impact. I would say just start small and work with what you have. Don’t be intimated by someone who is doing way more than you think you are doing. Just be honest with yourself and work and getting better. You’ll amaze yourself by how far you’ve come.