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Will & Noushin’s Story: How their Social Impact Startup is Changing Your Morning Coffee for Good

Vega Coffee co-founders Will DeLuca and Noushin Ketabi (pictured here with co-founder Rob Terenzi, far left) talk about how they’re revolutionizing coffee with their ‘farmer grown, farmer roasted’ purpose-driven business model which helps empower local women in Nicaragua.

The seeds for Vega Coffee were planted on a trip to Nicaragua in 2006, when Rob forged a relationship with a women-run coffee cooperative and encouraged them to start roasting (instead of just farming) the coffee beans. 

Following a devastating plague, which destroyed coffee crops in Central America, Rob, Noushin and Will decided the time had finally come to officially launch Vega Coffee to the public and help local farmers get ‘back on their feet.’ Their social impact startup helps women-led coffee cooperatives keep more of the profits by roasting the coffee beans (which they also grow and harvest) on-site, enabling them to make a higher profit and invest in creating a better future for local communities.

Will and Noushin talk about how their direct-to-consumer business model is revolutionizing the coffee industry by generating positive impacts for farmers, their ongoing commitment to Nicaragua (where Rob and Noushin currently live) and the importance of working with the right co-founders and overcoming uncertainty when launching a mission-driven company.

Tell me the story behind Vega Coffee. What inspired you to launch a social impact coffee startup in Nicaragua?

It started in 2006, (when) our co-founder Rob went to Nicaragua and worked for a not-for-profit there and linked up with a women-run coffee cooperative.  That was the launch of ‘Vega 1.0.’ The main philosophy was to not export all of the high-quality, fair trade certified, organic coffee because they weren’t making much money through those channels.
Instead they decided to start roasting the coffee and selling it within Nicaragua in tourist hubs, hotels, cafes, etc. The idea being that if they took on more of the supply chain, specifically the roasting, they’ll make more money. And that worked really well.
Then Rob’s life plan took him to law school a few years later, where we met. We all share an interest in economic issues in Central America, specifically around coffee and broken supply chains – where valuable resources are taken from these countries and the real money is made in the United States, with farmers being cut out of that.
We had been talking about taking the initial model Rob started and challenging the export system with it. And that’s where the seeds of Vega were sown.
Then we all left our jobs (Rob and I were attorneys in San Francisco) and moved down to Nicaragua to start Vega Coffee.
The three of us (myself, Rob and Will) have been working together since 2014 and we started shipping to customers in January 2015.
One of the things that makes Vega Coffee’s business model so unique is the fact that you work directly with a female cooperative to roast the coffee beans prior to shipping to customers. How were you able to fund the on-site roasting facility in Nicaragua? What steps did you take to build trust with the local community?
In terms of trust, Rob started the relationship with the farmers back in 2006 so when we decided to come down, we weren’t new faces. They had been used to foreigners coming down with ‘this idea’ and ‘that idea’ but without any real understanding of the context – good intentions but not understanding what the realities were for coffee farmers in Nicaragua.

We had been friends with the farmers, Rob maintained the relationships and organized trips during law school for students to come down and learn about the coffee supply chain. So when we moved down, we already had relationships with them on a personal level. I think that was really a big difference for us and the farmer cooperatives.
Then when we all went down in 2013, the La Roya plague (which by some estimates, caused around $1 billion in damages) ….had damaged the higher quality coffee crops. So what ends up happening is you have farmers lacking an economic incentive from the industry to produce high-quality coffee (the supply chain is already stacked against their favor) and then you have the increase in the cost of growing coffee, due to challenges with La Roya. We know in Nicaragua, they were down to 1/3 of their annual production – and we’re talking about farmers that were making about $1,000 per year from coffee and that’s the main source of their income, and that got reduced to a 1/3 of that. It was devastating.
So we decided this might be the right time to start Vega Coffee and we asked the community if they would be interested in learning about the other part of the supply chain (roasting). Everyone was interested. So we decided it was time to give our idea a go!
The other aspect that’s helped us build relationships is the fact that we’re permanent fixtures there. Rob and Noushin live there and that’s different than what they’re used to with coffee buyers.
Primarily, coffee shops will send a buyer down once, maybe twice max per year. For us, we’re at the cooperative every other week and it’s a very close relationship and I think that helps too with the trust – them knowing that we’re not going anywhere.
And the other really important part is the results – from those first few shipments to those first few payments, they become our advocates as we expand and try to bring in more farmers and cooperatives into the model. It’s not so much us, it’s them talking with each other about this being a great opportunity.
What social and environmental problems are you helping to solve with Vega Coffee? And what are your plans for the future?
On one hand, there’s the social or economic impact. The coffee supply chain, as it’s been for so long, is really inefficient and relies on so many intermediaries to get the coffee from the farm to the end consumer. (So) consumers end up paying for that bloated supply chain and farmers are cut out of the most profit-making activities, like roasting.
We tried to totally re-envision the supply chain – what if we didn’t have to rely on all of these people and just learned the export/import process ourselves to streamline this chain? As a result, we’re now able to deliver quality coffee to consumers for less and farmers earn more money by being able to take on the roasting.  Farmers end up with more income, that’s also more frequent. Traditionally…the farmers received one payment for their ‘green coffee beans.’ But with our model, we’re paying farmers every two weeks to come in and roast the coffee and become more participatory members of the process.
We also don’t direct how the farmers invest that extra money that they’re able to earn through our model…some communities want to invest in education for children, while others want to put some of it back into their farms so next year’s crop has a higher yield or quality. So it’s exciting to see what they do with that extra money.
The farmers we tend to work with are small-scale, the average income was about $1,000 per year from selling their green beans, and that was barely enough to get by – let alone enough to invest in improving their crops…or their families education or healthcare.
We also work a lot with women, training them to roast…so that additional income tends to get invested more in their family and community, the effects of which are multiplied.
Environmentally speaking, we only source coffee that’s grown without the use of any chemicals. A lot of it doesn’t have the certification but it’s grown without any chemicals – the farmers don’t have the economic resources to afford the certification even though they’re practicing with organic techniques.
We do everything we can to make sure we’re creating the economic incentives in the market for farmers to grow high-quality coffee in harmony with the environment.
Launching any type of startup requires a huge amount of personal dedication. Was there ever a point where you were ready to throw in the towel? If so, what changed your mind?
I think you can’t really achieve anything big unless you’re pushed. Sometimes you feel pushed to your limit on a daily basis at certain stages, or once a month and sometimes you look at income stability and not really having that, you think about your future and get a little bit anxious.
We’re trying to do something really big and that can be really difficult at times, but it’s also just so awesome and rewarding at other times.
The thing I think has helped us persevere– because we don’t have people we can look to and say they tried this model and this worked and this didn’t – is working hands on in Nicaragua and seeing the direct impact of what we’re trying to do. It feels very powerful when you see orders increasing and then work with famers to get those orders out the door, it’s a really rewarding feeling. And you realize ‘ wow, this little idea we had, way back when, we made this into a reality!.’
What’s your best piece of advice for purpose-driven entrepreneurs thinking about launching a business?
We try to have a strong team and really support each other. I see entrepreneurs that go it alone – and it’s impressive – but it’s really difficult too.
We’re a three-person team that had close relationships beforehand and that’s helped  – it would be really tough doing this by yourself.
You look at some of the accelerators that are more internet focused, like Y Combinator and 500 Startups, and they strongly recommend to have at least two founders, maybe three or four. There’s a lot of support you can get from the team aspect and I definitely think it’s beneficial to try to find someone (to work with).
You’ve got to be comfortable with or learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.
To have the team of three, and the relationships we have, definitely helps.
The best ideas come out of good dialogue and discussion and coming at it from different experiences, so I feel like it’s certainly helpful. Especially with social businesses faced with different challenges, like working in an international context….I think it’s that much more important to have a team.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a purpose-driven entrepreneur?
Really love what you’re doing and the idea that you have. When we look at Vega Coffee, we love each other as a team and then we love coffee, Nicaragua, the farmers and the communities we work with. So it just all came together!
(We work) everyday, non-stop…you’ve got to really love what you’re doing to persevere.
Noushin, you’ve spent the full year living in Nicaragua since 2014. What’s the one thing that you want everyone to know about life there?
It’s been really exciting to learn a new culture…and it’s a super interesting place!  I hope more people come down to visit! It feels like a world away from the United States but at the same time there’s also so much in common. There’s a real openness towards new comers there and that’s something I’ve been really grateful for. It’s made my life really wonderful there.

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THANK YOU:-) You just made a positive impact, how easy was that?!