Home Changemakers Groundbreakers Young coffee roaster plans to uplift smallholder farmers in Mzansi and Africa

Young coffee roaster plans to uplift smallholder farmers in Mzansi and Africa

The coffee industry in Mzansi is not as prominent as it is in other African countries, but Mhlengi Ngcobo (25) is missioning to grow coffee in the country

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At the beginning of 2007, Mhlengi Ngcobo was just another happy 13-year-old boy playing with his friends after school. Then suddenly he started getting severe headaches, feeling dizzy and tired.

“Doctors took my blood pressure and it showed a reading of 188/125. The doctor said people with such high blood pressures are usually in a coma,” says the now 25-year-old.

“I was diagnosed with young hypertension (a severe increase in blood pressure that can lead to a stroke) and cautioned to change my lifestyle. And to never consume caffeinated beverages,” Ngcobo recalls.

Today, 12 years later, he is not only the “biggest” coffee enthusiast, but he is also the founder of his own coffee roastery that works with smallholder farmers in South Africa and other African countries.

His company called CoffeeMM is situated in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. From there he supplies restaurants and companies with fresh, gourmet coffee using e-commerce.

After his diagnosis the young Ngcobo had many questions he wanted answered. Why was he prohibited from consuming coffee for the rest of his life? And what did caffeine even mean?

This 25-year-old business owns a coffee roastery that focuses on sourcing quality coffee from small farmers. Photo: Supplied.
Mhlengi Ngcobo (25) owns a coffee roastery that focuses on sourcing quality coffee from small farmers. Photo: Supplied

His new-found fascination with the forbidden beverage led him on a research mission. He discovered the beverage’s health benefits as well as the processes behind coffee production and all the unique methods of preparation.

While studying civil engineering at the University of Stellenbosch in 2016, Ngcobo’s coffee agenda deepened. For a varsity project he had to choose a business to specialise in, and of course the aspiring coffee connoisseur chose coffee. That meant that he had to devote all his energy to studying the market for coffee in South Africa.

Finally, one year later in March 2017, Ngcobo launched his own roastery while still being a student.

However, Ngcobo’s market research failed him and he assumed that sales would shoot through the roof, but his reckoning was far off. He only sold one 1kg bag of coffee that year.

“Looking back, I realise how far I’ve come with CoffeeMM. The effort and sacrifices that are done in secret get rewarded in public,” he says.

“My only sale was to a family member. I thought that because coffee is something that everyone drinks, I would sell a lot, but clearly not. But it’s part of the journey,” he says.

“I think it could be a lesson for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. In the beginning things might not go the way you think they would, but just hang in there.”

Ngcobo realised that in order for him to taste the sweetness of success, people had to trust his brand. There were also health and food handling standards which his business had to adhere to. These things delayed his trade that year and he was forced back to the drawing board.

“I reinvested my efforts into studying the market better. This helped, because when I started trading fully in 2018, I knew exactly who I wanted to target,” Ngcobo says.

Looking back, he believes he has learned a valuable lesson, and that is to fail fast and create different models in line with his company’s vision.

Finding the potential in small farmers

CoffeeMM thrives on building long term relationships with farmers, not just in the coffee industry but across the board.

He says that while other roasters focus on creating the product of roasted coffee, CoffeeMM focuses on sourcing quality coffee from small farmers who have the product and the skills, but lack resources to expand their production capacity.

Currently, CoffeeMM works with Burundian farmers on a brand called Ruvubu Coffee. They have a warehouse in Cape Town and Ngcobo’s roastery is a distributor for them. He has the same agreement with an Ethiopian brand called Red coffee.

Despite selling one bag of coffee for an entire year, Mhlengi Ngcobo refused to give up on his business. Photo: CoffeeMM Facebook.
Despite selling one bag of coffee for an entire year, Mhlengi Ngcobo refused to give up on his business. Photo: CoffeeMM

Ngcobo plans to collaborate with farmers in Zimbabwe and roast their coffee once he expands to a commercial roastery.

“Unfortunately, the industry here in SA is not as prominent as it is in other African countries because of our climate. However, I’m embarking on projects with farmers in Mpumalanga, KZN and in the Western Cape to grow coffee in the country,” he says.

Ngcobo enjoys being a roaster. For him, creating coffee products that add value to people’s lives is what he loves most.

Delayed goals and optimism

His passion has earned him accolades. In 2018 and 2019, Ngcobo exhibited at Decorex and has also been nominated as a top six finalist for Cape Town Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards (GSEA).

“Looking back, I realise how far I’ve come with CoffeeMM. The effort and sacrifices that are done in secret get rewarded in public,” he says.

Unfortunately, due to the nation-wide lockdown Ngcobo had to delay many business plans. A planned training facility and programme to empower unemployed youth through coffee roasting and barista training was interrupted by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, CoffeeMM is working tirelessly to make the training a possibility. “It is at the core of our business to empower and nurture those who may be disadvantaged,” Ngcobo says.

Ngcobo explains, “It is not about being the only one, but about working with others, learning from them and finding synergies.”

Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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