There is too much negative coverage of migrants, either as criminals or people who only depend on the social system. With this kind of perception, it is hard to find people who take you seriously.

Rachel Mwakazi 

 A labour of love in Germany

by Christine Bukania

Rachel Mwakazi is in her element in the hustle and bustle of Cologne, where street cafés and restaurants have long been a central part of social life. So she should be. With her range of Mrangi gourmet teas she seems to be in the right place.

A LABOUR OF LOVE

Building a business that is dominated by large foreign companies has been a labour of love for Mwakazi, who says she started selling tea in 1997.

The veteran entrepreneur arrived in Germany in 1993 as a fresh-faced, nineteen year old au-pair. Then, her plan was to learn the German language and culture, study business administration and go back to a lucrative job in the tourism sector or in a multi-national company.

A twist of fate changed her path. She did not complete her business administration studies; neither did she get the job she had dreamed of. Instead, as a new wife and mother, she opened the exclusive African Homesteads hairdressing shop, that according to her, was one of its kind in Cologne, not only for the quality of services, but for its notoriety for taking on the municipal council to provide more services to African entrepreneurs in the town.

TEA


It was here in one of the rooms of the African Homesteads that her tea trade was born, at first, simply as a side-kick to the more lucrative hairdressing venture. “Tea brings people together, they relax and talk to each other like old friends,” she explains her motivation with a happy smile.

Over the years, she has honed and refined her tea making skills, packaging and presentation. The result is a brand of tea which is gaining attention not only because of the quality, but because of the creative and refined tea-making ritual that she has developed, which comes complete with its own unique designs of cups and teaspoons.  Although Mwakazi states that Kenyan tea is very popular, she also sources from South Africa, and Malawi.

LINKING FARMERS TO MARKETS

More and more, small-scale entrepreneurs in the Diaspora are recognising that they can help to link local producers with international markets, a win-win situation that ranges right from simple trading agreements to elaborate social entrepreneurship models.

“There are many Kenyans running businesses in Germany. It is an opportunity to market Kenyan coffee and tea and help rural farmers get the best prices for their produce. We come from those countries and we, better than Germans, understand why fair prices matter,” says Mwakazi.

According to her, the German business environment is well structured and provides many opportunities and support to entrepreneurs, mostly through trade unions. At the same time, the Kenyan Embassy in Berlin is available to provide commercial advisory services and information to citizens who want to invest back home.

Yet there are few initiatives that are taking advantage of these opportunities. Whereas Mrangi Tea is increasing outlets for tea and can offer better prices for suppliers in a typical commercial enterprise set-up, Chania Coffee, with offices both in Kenya and Germany, has positioned itself more strongly as a social enterprise. It enables producers to sell directly to roasters and supports farmers to adopt modern methods. Additionally, Chania Coffee gives a small proportion of its revenue to a non-profit community based organization for social projects which benefit the farmers. Other entrepreneurs have concentrated on creating trading partnerships with non-food item producers like carvers and painters.

A serious challenge affecting small-scale entrepreneurs is the image of Africans in Germany.  Mwakazi feels there is too much negative coverage of migrants, either as unruly criminals or people who only depend on the social system. With this kind of perception, it is hard to find people who take you seriously. “Finding institutional financing is a daunting task, as is getting German customers to buy from us,” she explains.

Mrangi

Not one to lack ideas, Mwakazi has instead concentrated her efforts in developing a diverse marketing strategy. Reiterating that tea is a social drink, Mwakazi explains that most of her revenue is generated through tea-packages supplied to events. With “let’s discuss it over a cuppa” meetings, Mwakazi blends business and social connection, as people come together to hold discussions and she provides the refreshments. Her artful packaging and creative flair also ensures a good stream of visitors to her booth during exhibitions.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

Mwakazi acknowledges that breaking into any market is difficult, and more so a foreign one. For almost two decades, she has had to fight against the odds to establish a business in Germany, and she acknowledges that it is not for the fainthearted. But on the other side, it is Europe’s economic hub, accounting for about 20 per cent of the entire Gross Domestic Product of the European Union. It is also the gateway to 49 million Germans and over 500 Europeans with a strong tea and coffee drinking culture – enough motivation to keep trying for a larger slice of the revenue. “Small-scale entrepreneurs must integrate themselves into the German market, copy the way German companies do business and then adapt these methods to bring more benefits for their people,” she says.

For now, Mwakazi’s is set to expand her market further north, to Norway, where she is already in advanced stages to set up shop.


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