An Alliance of Heart
by Kara Pound
photos by Tammy Harrow
Over the past century, coffee has become a major cash crop for Kenya, an East African country with coastline on the Indian Ocean. The nation’s location on the equator lends to the perfect climate for coffee plant cultivation and is a critical source of employment for Kenyan people.
“The coffee farmers back home are very poor,” says Martin Kabaki, co-founder of Growers Alliance Coffee Company, which recently opened a brick-and-mortar location on Anastasia Boulevard. “There are so many middlemen between growing and consuming that the farmers aren’t paid very well.”
Kabaki was born and raised in Naivasha, a market town in Nakuru County, Kenya, northwest of Nairobi. He immigrated to Northeast Florida in December of 1999 and started working at Panera Bread on Baymeadows Road in Jacksonville.
“Working there, I realized how much Americans loved coffee. They would be lining up for it in the mornings,” Kabaki remembers. “So I started researching how to import Kenyan coffee to the United States.”
In 2003, Kabaki began selling green beans – or unroasted beans – to roasters around the country who would then repackage and brand the coffee. Kabaki knew there must be a better way to increase profits and share earnings with the farmers back home.
Purity Gikunju was born and raised in Embu, Kenya, a mid-size town about 75 miles northeast of Nairobi towards Mount Kenya. She moved to Orlando in 1999 as part of Disney’s Cultural Exchange Program. Like Kabaki, Gikunju recognized the opportunity to bring Kenyan coffee to the U.S. and help those at home.
In 2006, Kabaki and Gikunju separately attended a coffee conference in Seattle – both armed with the mission to find a way to import Kenyan coffee and roast and sell it. They met, shared their stories, decided to band together and ultimately fell in love.
“We’re both passionate about coffee and know how poor the farmers are back home,” says Gikunju. “We have two missions; to cut out the six or seven middlemen and to give back to coffee growers.”
Though they met more than 3,000 miles away from their homes in Jacksonville and Orlando, the couple didn’t live that far from each other. In 2008, they dissolved their individual companies to start a new one together.
The same year, they started selling their roasted Kenyan beans and fresh cups of coffee as Growers Alliance, and became popular at local farmers markets.
“About four years ago, we knew that we wanted to start a coffee shop with a central location near the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, which hosts one of our most successful farmers markets,” Gikunju explains. “We found this old mechanic shop and signed a lease in September of 2014.”
It’s been a bumpy road from concept to completion for the coffee shop, which opened this January. Permits took nearly a year and a half, and transforming a business focused on automotive services to one focused on coffee was no small feat.
Just when Kabaki and Gikunju were set for their grand opening, Hurricane Matthew hit and the structure sustained significant flooding – taking out four commercial refrigerators and the new drywall and landscaping that had just been installed.
“It was frustrating,” Martin admits. “But we grew up really really poor and we are used to obstacles.” Gikunju agrees. “We were just grateful to be alive,” she says. “Our hearts went out to everyone in the community.”
After years of working to make their dream a reality, Kabaki and Gikunju opened the doors to Growers Alliance Café & Bakery. They offer fresh-roasted beans from around the world, locally-baked pastries, and authentic Kenyan fare like Samosa, Mandazi and Chapati.
There’s also a fair trade gift shop section with jewelry, home goods, artwork and accessories from Kenya.
For years, Kabaki and Gikunju have donated 10 percent of all pre-tax profits to their home villages in Kenya. In 2010, they started a non-profit dialysis center called Kijiji, which stands for “village” in Swahili.
“There are very few hospitals in Kenya,” says Kabaki. “And most are owned by the government. Kenyans have health issues such as hypertension and diabetes, but no healthcare or funds to manage them.”
The couple recently purchased a three-and-a-half acre piece of land in Naivasha that has a 20,000-square-foot building on the property. They plan to move the dialysis center to this new space and expand it into a hospital offering dental and eye care.
“We are trying to use our shop to tell our Kenyan story,” says Kabaki. “We’ve been blessed and it’s important that we help those at home through our passion for coffee.”