“I want to do something meaningful,” Shreenal says. “The older generation doesn’t understand that. How much do you get paid? Do you get a good salary? Something bigger than that drives our generation. You don’t always get buy-in from your family. You just have to state your own vision for your life. Understand their point of view and do what’s right for you.”
I smile. It’s a brave choice, but not an easy one. Fortunately, it’s one that both Shreenal Ruparelia and I have made. We sit down for a Skype catch up after a good four year hiatus. We met when we were both students at the University of Melbourne. These days I’m in Japan and she’s in Nairobi, Kenya.
Life has taken both of us on a very unexpected journey.
“In hindsight,” Shreenal says, “had I not gone to Tanzania to work at a dairy farm, I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m currently doing.”
Farmer by Day
“And just what are you up to these days?” I ask.
“I’m the East Africa Coffee Strategy Manager for Nespresso and Technoserve,” Shreenal says. “They want to expand their supply chain across Africa. Currently, they get their coffee from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. The idea is to expand into other countries, work with farmers and develop a sustainable supply chain. They partner up with Nespresso.
“It’s got a lot of impact. We’ve reached close to 260,000 smallholder farmers across the region. They get better price for the coffee if the quality of their coffee is really really good. They now have water, electricity, send their kids to school and make profit out of their coffee. The idea is to reach a million farmers across the world.”
“What were the challenges you faced?” I ask.
“I had no clue about coffee,” Shreenal says. “I didn’t know anything so I’m learning a lot about it. From growing it, to harvesting it, and to how it’s sold. I’m also learning about sustainability – for farmers as well as the environment. Due to global warming, we try and implement innovative environmentally friendly farming practices.
“My job is also a hybrid role between the profit and non-profit sector. It’s a good challenge: how to create shared value. The farmers are very important to me. If they are unable to harvest high-quality coffee it just defeats the overall goal.”
Technopreneur by Night
“What made you decide to start your own tech company?” I ask.
“The idea came when I was working with my dad,” Shreenal says. “Traditionally, he worked on the phone or newspaper adverts. I asked him: why don’t we have an online presence? He said he didn’t know how to do it. I talked to other people in Kenya and people generally think online marketing is for big companies. There’s no knowledge around it for small and medium businesses – and they’re the huge chunk that drive the local economy.
“Things have become very competitive in Kenya. Marketing is also underestimated in Kenya. So I decided to set up a tech company called Blue Bear (www.bluebearapp.com) to meet this need. I started learning programming languages on Code Academy. There’s a huge group of young people in Kenya who are trying to start their own companies. I met a lot of my teammates through networking and word of mouth.
“Initially, I didn’t talk about my idea, because there is this feeling in the tech industry that people will steal your ideas. And then this year I thought just screw it. Overcoming that fear has worked in my benefit. As a result, I have a team and a product. We’re going to do our beta launch soon, and hopefully launch next year.”
Day jobs and night jobs
My generation. We’re doing what we’re ‘supposed to do’ by day, and pursuing our own visions and goals by night. You can’t blame us for wanting both money and meaning. Money alone is not enough. We need meaning, too.
And with enough discipline, planning and courage – we might just have it.