RENEW Strategies

RENEW's Fellows Program: A View from Inside

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Laura Davis
| December 30, 2013

The following is a guest post by Vina Verman, who participated in RENEW's Fellows Program from October - December 2013. Vina lives in Washington, D.C. and is completing a Master of Business Administration at the George Washington School of Business.

I was first introduced to RENEW in the summer of 2013 while I was doing an internship with USAID in Ethiopia. I attended a workshop organized by RENEW that trained employees of a USAID project on the concept of private equity and angel investing. Having returned to school to obtain an MBA for the purpose of improving the private sector in developing countries, particularly in Africa, RENEW’s mission struck a chord within me. That day, I was extremely appreciative of RENEW’s optimism and the potential that it saw in the progress of African countries.

I completed my internship, where I worked in Ethiopia’s coffee industry, and returned to Washington, D.C. to begin my second year at the George Washington School of Business. While sitting in my new venture financing course, I thought about RENEW and was interested to learn how this company operated and how it differed from the investment firms that I was introduced to through class. I reached out to RENEW to inquire about internship opportunities and was excited to be brought on board soon after. The entire team, from near and far, was very welcoming.

Once I joined the team, I learned that RENEW was investing in a specialty coffee company offering speciality coffee from the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia, possibly the most popular coffee growing region in the country. RENEW was also making headway to fund the growth of a traditional Ethiopian bread (injera) company in Ethiopia which is using 100% teff, a gluten-free grain.

I first started looking into the market for Ethiopian coffee and quickly learned that despite Washington, D.C. being a major diaspora hub, the diaspora community is not the ideal target market. After visiting a few diaspora grocery stores, I noticed that Ethiopian coffee was sold in transparent plastic tubs with no product or company information. Specialty coffee gets some of its high quality characteristics from the roasting process, however, diaspora like to buy green coffee and roast it themselves for guests in a traditional coffee ceremony at home. I shifted my research away from the diaspora market and discovered that many large U.S. coffee roasters hold free public cuppings (coffee tastings) at their roasting plants or laboratories in Washington, D.C. This gave me access to very knowledgeable coffee buyers and employees of coffee roasters who gave me insights into how some roasting companies choose their coffee and what they look for. The farmer’s story was not the most important aspect for many roasters, instead, they looked for the best quality when cupping (coffee tasting), and they looked for certain characteristics that different coffee origins provide. In speaking with a brand manager at Starbucks, it was exciting to learn that even the world’s mega-coffee roaster is committed to tasting all coffee samples it receives and providing timely feedback.

With Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee, the mainstream exposure that Ethiopian coffee has gained through Starbuck’s recent offering of single-origin Ethiopian coffee, and RENEW’s partner offering coffee from the Yirgacheffe region, this growing Ethiopian specialty coffee company has nowhere to go but up!

There was a lot to learn about both the coffee and injera markets. My experience with RENEW has allowed me to apply concepts I’ve learned from my MBA courses, and it has also allowed me to identify areas that I would like to strengthen before I complete my program.

Other parts of my fellowship that were especially interesting included having the opportunity to join in on RENEW’s monthly conference calls where RENEW's partners update its community of angel investors about the happenings on the ground in Ethiopia, give status reports of ongoing projects, and share new investment opportunities. It was exciting to be included in the circle of angel investors, be exposed to the process of bringing in new investors, and be able to put myself in the shoes of investors who are listening to the information to decide which companies to invest in. In addition to this, I had the opportunity to have dinner with one of RENEW’s active angel investors at a members-only club in Washington, D.C., where we discussed our individual thoughts and findings on the specialty coffee industry in the U.S.

A major part of my MBA process has been exploring different companies and industries to determine where I can best apply my unique background. A combination of working in Mali for five years in the areas of small business development and agricultural value chain development and with my unwavering passion for private sector development in emerging markets, this fellowship introduced me to impact investing and helped me to develop a very strong interest for private equity investments in Africa.

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