Business is full of beans at Boon Coffee

The Life: Business has not boomed for Boon Coffee, though that could change. Orit Mohammed discusses the challenges and growth potential of her venture.

The Ethiopian entrepreneur Orit Mohammed is a distributor of fair trade and organic Arabica beans from her home country. Sarah Dea / The National
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A day after Orit Mohammed narrowly lost a contest held on a local radio station to promote her business, she was back doing what she does best: selling coffee.

From her desk on the ninth floor of an old office building in congested Baniyas Square in Dubai, the soft-spoken Ethiopian runs her business - Boon Coffee - as a distributor of fair trade, organic Arabica beans from her home country.

Ms Mohammed acknowledges the contest gave her niche business much-needed exposure but her product is still a tough sell in brand-conscious Dubai.

Also, by losing the contest she lost out on prizes that included a big advertising budget, as well as office space in Dubai Airport free zone.

"People believe in branding here, especially western brands," says Ms Mohammed.

Boon Coffee picked up 40 clients online in the first week after the contest. The company now employs four people in Dubai.

A six-staff team based in Addis Ababa sorts each batch of coffee before she buys the green beans and ships them to Dubai, where they are roasted to ensure freshness.

Most Dubai coffee shops are run by multinational chains and by the time coffee ends up in the cup, it has travelled thousands of kilometres. The reason: beans are not usually roasted locally.

In addition, most coffee that chains serve is a blend of flavours. So, cheaper Robusta can be mixed with Arabica beans that are sourced from different countries.

An Ethiopian government mandate that chains such as Starbucks buy their beans through its commodities exchange and not directly from the farmers has weakened their supply chain.

The Dubai resident stocks only organic Ethiopian Arabica beans from the current harvest and sells them to small outlets retail and wholesale. Some is sold online to individuals. Yet Ms Mohammed has found it difficult to make inroads into Dubai's growing coffee culture. "I have been knocking on doors and they are not opening," she says.

"Ironically, coffee in Middle East traditionally came from Africa."

Prices of most of Boon Coffee's roasted beans are the same as the multinational coffee chains and less than the price of premium coffee roasters. "Our prices are lower because we are able to cut the middle man [coffee trader] out," says Ms Mohammed.

Eileen Wallis, a managing partner at The Portsmouth Group public relations company, was one of the judges on the recent radio competition in Dubai that Ms Mohammed took part in.

"Boon Coffee needs a compelling story, to differentiate it as a brand and articulate its benefits beyond taste, including its fair trade credentials," says Ms Wallis.

Almost 10 per cent of the company's profits go towards the education of coffee farmers' children in Ethiopia, says Ms Mohammed, who holds a Master's degree in African development.

This year, she wants to open two espresso bars. But rents at desirable locations continue to remain a major challenge for the one-year-old business. Moreover, all premium malls are already occupied by a lot of coffee shops, she says.

Started with Dh500,000 (US$136,121) investment, the company earned a only small profit last year as most of the coffee was given away as samples to establish the business. But the outlook is positive.

Armed with a marketing budget, which Boon Coffee did not have before, Ms Mohammed says she is on the way to building greater visibility for her company.

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