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Itinerant backpacker who co-founded Java

Kevin Ashley, CEO, Java Coffee House. PHOTO | COURTESY
Kevin Ashley, CEO, Java Coffee House. PHOTO | COURTESY 

From the time of its inception in 1999 to 2010, Java House opened 10 branches. In the last five years, it has opened 35 branches. In the next year, Java plans to open 12 branches across East Africa.

Cost of setting up one shop? About Sh50 million. It will rain coffee.

Java, with about 1,500 staff, also has the 360 degrees pizza restaurant and the Frozen Yoghurt. Java is currently rebranding with the intention of eventually launching into Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. A lot of this expansion is spurred by the American private equity group, Emerging Capital Partners that bought a majority stake in 2012.

I met Kevin in his office at ABC Place. He walked around his beautiful mvuli desk and sat in one of the visitor’s chairs across from me. That says something about the man.

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How does an American guy end up in Kenya, start a Kenyan brand and marry a Kenyan girl?

I came to Africa for the first time when I was 22 as a backpacker. I landed at JKIA and went to my base, a hotel along Latema Road called Iqbal, right opposite Modern Green Bar. I never went in there though. (Laughs)

I explored Africa, living in a tent. I came back in 1991 and worked as volunteer teacher in Kitale, teaching organic farming. In Lokichoggio, I stayed in Maasai manyattas trying to convince a local NGO to give me a job – UN guys were dumb enough to give me one. (Laughs)

Under World Food Programme in 1993, I saved some money and started an aviation business. Then in 1999, together with three others, we founded Java House. I’m the last of the founders, everyone else is gone.

At Java, we occupy a unique space; we are ideally peerless. We are not high-end dining, we are not a fast food. We are... Java. (Laughs) People have their first dates there, strike deals, write poetry, surf the internet – they chill out at Java.

Why Java? Why coffee?

My former life was as a landscape gardener in the Bay Area of San Francisco after I graduated from college. I got hooked on coffee which I would have from a place called Peet’s Coffee, incredible coffee. When I came to Africa, I just couldn’t get good coffee.
When in Sudan, I just couldn’t find good coffee and we would drive down to Kakuma refugee camp, find Ethiopian guys, buy green coffee beans, roast them on frying pans, pound it up and make our own coffee. It was better than what you could buy in stores. That’s where the idea sprung from.

Flew back to Bay Area, learnt how to roast coffee, flew in equipment from Dubai, and started the first Java in Adams Arcade. It was basically on the principle that Nairobi needed a good coffee house, and a place to have breakfast. We had no plans to open many branches then.

Why the rapid expansion?

If you have the capacity to bring something that someone wants to them then why not? If we have people in Donholm who want a Java but they have to come to town to get one, why not build one in Greenspan Mall? After all, our customers live there. Why not build one in Naivasha? Why should we sit and let international brands come and dominate Africa when we understand this market better, when we know what people want?

What drew you as a backpacker to Africa?

I grew up in a strange town of 6,000 people called Perris, California, where nobody was really well off. All my friends were African-American who I would play basketball with. When you are young, you don’t question where people come from but when you get older, you start to question about race and heritage.

I was (and still am) very much into African-American music. I don’t know if you ever notice the Java playlist? That’s mine. (Smiles) I became passionate about African-American music and took on jazz, blues and RnB. I did some deejaying in college and became very curious about Africa.

My friendships were routed on their music and when I came here, I felt people’s understanding of personal space was so unique, warm, not pushy, and I just said, this is a wonderful place, I’m staying.

Why rebrand Java now?

How many people say, “Biko, let’s meet at Nairobi Java?” Precisely. When you go to Uganda or Kisumu, I think it’s insulting to have a ‘Nairobi Java’ sign.

I’m surprised my brothers in Kisumu haven’t burnt down your shop yet.

(Laughs aloud) We did our homework. We went down and hired from the town. So anyway, the name ‘Nairobi’ needs to come out. We want to stay relevant with people.

Are there plans to have the company listed in the stock exchange? You know, let Kenyans own a part of it?

That’s the best possible outcome in all possible scenarios. I don’t know if the time is right for that... you can see people being battered in the stock exchange.

However, I can’t speak for my private equity partners necessarily but our goal is to create a brand that is always proudly Kenyan and if it ever goes to the stock exchange, that would be a great day. But whether this is the right time, I don’t know.

What’s your business maxim as CEO?

If someone is losing in the transaction, nobody is winning. We want everybody happy. My staff are the best paid with pension and medical cover. I will pay the government Sh1 billion in taxes this year. Ethics is big for us, those values drive our business. Everybody has to win.

I know they are all your children and you love them equally but what’s your favourite Java of the 43 branches?

(Wow) I don’t have a favourite, but I have to say Adams Arcade has pride of place because it’s where we started. I have lots of memories from there.

Like what, nostalgia?

It’s certainly melancholic. It represents how young and stupid we were. (Laughs) But you see the wear and tear at that branch? It’s like seeing an uncle who used to be strong but now looks aged and bent. We are building these new and modern Java branches and then you look at the Adams Arcade Java and we are like “how do we get you to the same level as the rest?”

But do you have to? Maybe it should remain a shrine of sorts...

I agree with you. You know, we just lost the proprietor of Njuguna’s bar right across and I think if he went and put shiny tiles everywhere, he would have lost customers. So yes, we can freshen things up without spoiling it.

What’s the worst business decision you ever made?

Going into the bar business. I co-founded Mercury Lounge down here at ABC [They eventually sold it]. Tell you what, when you have just had your first kid and they are two-years-old, and your second kid is on the way... don’t go into the bar business! (Laughs) I just couldn’t manage to run Java until 9.30pm then go start a new shift at the bar and take care of family. One had to go. The bar did.

What do you fear for your kids?

That they will make the mistake of not choosing happiness over everything else.

Did you always choose happiness?

Yes, all the time. I was the sixth born and when you are last born, your parents are so tired they don’t have time to baby you. When I wanted to come to Africa, they let me. Can you imagine being in Nairobi at 22, a time when there was no internet, phone calls were five dollars a minute, letters that would take three weeks to get there?

But they let me go explore the world. I hope my kids get to explore the world and find what it is they are looking for.

What are you struggling with now as a man?

I’m going to hit 50 next year, and so my health is a big worry. I celebrated my 25th birthday on top of Mount Kenya. I want to celebrate my 50th up there again but I worry if I will be able to make it. Health is a big thing now.

How did you meet your wife?

At JKIA. (Grins) She used to work at that phone bureau at Gate Two. This was in 1998... wait, I should really get those dates right, right? (Laughs) So I’m standing in the queue when I see her and I immediately know there is something special about her, the way she was handling the difficult clients.

So I wrote a note behind those yellow parking tickets they used to give you back in the day, telling her I wasn’t a weirdo, and I went back, queued and pretended to make a phone call. When I was done, I slipped her the note and ran away. (Laughs) Lo and behold she called! And here we are.

Do you sometimes wear your spy hat, don very dark shades, sneak into Artcaffe, sit quietly in a corner and check out what they are doing?

(Laughs) Uhm, no... not really. Look, I admire Artcaffe, they clearly have their niche right and they have built beautiful shops and they bake beautiful pastries and I take my hat out for them. But if you obsesses about your competition you lose sight of what you want to achieve.

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