Fair Trade Coffee Comes to Windsor
For most of us, one of the basic ingredients of a happy life is a good coffee – for Onyeka Obiocha, 'Ony' to his friends who are legion, a happy life is all about good coffee, but also about civic mindedness on a global scale.
Onyeka, a Windsor native, recently became President and COO of Happy Life Coffee, a local company that tries to combine classic entrepreneurship with social reform. HLC plans to import organic coffee from the village region of Kilema, an area in Tanzania on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, and pledges to return any profit it makes to the same villagers who harvest the coffee trees, to help them build sustainable livelihoods for themselves.
“Happy Life Coffee really came about when late last year the founder of the company, Vishal, visited Tanzania and decided he wanted to give back to those communities, and he wanted to do it in an efficient way that is both beneficial to the consumer and the beneficiary. Not to create a charity, but do business based on societal impact with business principles.”
Vishal quickly realized that 90% of coffee in the US market comes from developing countries, and he decided that this was the product he wanted to import. He knew the coffee industry, he knew the development industry, but he did not know business – and that's why Ony was brought in.
Obiocha has been involved in civic life since he was in high school – he was class president at Windsor High in 2007, studied economics at UCONN, graduated with a certificate in entrepreneurship in May 2012, and after a stint in Africa was back in Connecticut exactly the moment Happy Life needed him. And he brought an important asset with him.
"My parents are from Nigeria," he explained during a recent interview at Bart's Beanery, where he showed his product to manager Carol Engelman. "I have done a ton of work in Cape Town. I have been to Nigeria, so I am very passionate about giving back and developing these communities. And I know for me personally, the reason I am here is because of circumstance. My parents had the right opportunity the right time to live in this beautiful country, and I was really maybe one X mark away at the embassy from growing up in Nigeria. So I have to keep in mind what I am thankful for and work for global development and really giving back to the world community as a whole."
His parents taught him also a very valuable lesson, Ony said. When he was 10 years old, a 5th grader at Poquonock School, they sent him and his sister back to Nigeria to live for a year, to see where they came from.
“That is where I really first became a global citizen,” Onyeka now says. “Going there and seeing people in those harsh conditions, and these people are not on TV – this is your cousin, this is your uncle. So going there and seeing that made me truly realize how big this world is and that is when I knew I wanted to change the way this world works. So ever since then it has been a constant progression.”
Over the past year. Happy Life has been working on its business model, and is now ready to start importing from Kilema, where, the story goes, European missionaries imported in the 19th century the first coffee trees in the area and taught the natives how to cultivate and harvest them. But, in contrast with other efforts, the company focuses not on doing “charity” but in developing a real business, focusing on entrepreneurship, on healthcare and on education, Ony says.
“I think we are trying to drift away from the charity model, and focus on business principles,” he stressed. “I know a lot of companies tend to donate money to charities and look at the short term cosmetic market side of it. We are trying to invest in the long term development and really try to help eradicate poverty in the areas that we work with. We know we need to take a holistic approach, but we want to try to make a difference and not only promote the coffee industry but also promote the developing world and try to develop partnerships and try to grow something that a lot of people can be proud of.
“I think,” Ony says, “that what we are trying to develop is a 21st century business model. It is more than just selling goods, it is about being a community citizen as a business.”
And in the process, import great coffee too. During a tasting session at “Terry's Place” in Bloomfield, customers tried the coffee Ony brought.
“Sabroso!” said Tony Soto, a regular. “Tasty.”
For more information on Happy Life Coffee, go to www.happylifecoffee.com, or call 860-341-1813.
Photo: Cheers! Caron Engelman tries the Happy Life Coffee sample that Ony Obiocha brought for Bart’s Beanery friends to taste. Carol, but also Gabriel Lepore and Siobhan Melley agreed that what Happy Life Coffee tries to do is a great idea.