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When Samuel Ngwa was growing up in Cameroon, his father owned a seven-acre plot of land. There he tended a vegetable garden to feed the family and, for income, planted coffee trees. Despite loathing the labor, young Samuel weeded and picked coffee beans as instructed. If he didn’t, his father wouldn’t pay his school fees.
But Ngwa gave little thought to the family’s commercial crop until the winter of 1973, when he moved to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Stout. “Everybody I saw was moving very fast. Most of them were holding these white cups in their hands. Everybody drinking coffee,” Ngwa recalled.
“It dawned on me that all this time when my father was kicking my butt to pick beans, people all over the world were drinking coffee. At that point, I knew I wanted to know more about how the process worked.”
After obtaining a master’s degree in industrial technology and management, Ngwa returned to Cameroon, where he made connections with local growers and plotted his plunge into entrepreneurship. HIs vision: to sell responsibly sourced, high-quality African beans in the American market. By 1996, the Brooklyn Park resident had launched his first line of coffees, which he marketed under the Safari Pride label.
At first, Ngwa concentrated on single-source beans that he obtained from Cameroon and other countries in Africa’s so-called bean belt. Later, he added an array of blends to his repertoire. He says that his Azobe Blend—“strong coffee for strong people”—is his most potent eye-opener. A mix of Arabica and Robusta beans, the coffee takes its name from the Azobe tree of the African lowlands, which produces some of the hardest, most durable woods on earth.
Like all of Ngwa’s beans, Azobe is available for purchase on-line (safaripridecoffee.com) and at select restaurants.
Originally, Ngwa operated out of a rented space on Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis. But since 2004, he has roasted his beans at a business incubator in an industrial neighborhood on the North Side. In addition to selling coffees, Ngwa runs a food import business, Dessco International, which sells everything from smoked frozen fish to African spices and palm oils.
About “Making It in Minnesota”: This ongoing Sahan Journal series will highlight the experiences, challenges, and successes of immigrant business owners—in their own words. We’d like to share your business story, too.
If you’re an immigrant business owner or entrepreneur, please get in touch with us at email@example.com. (Feel free to suggest a favorite business we should write about, too.) Please use the subject line “Making It in Minnesota.”
As part of his business, Ngwa used to make one or two trips to Africa every year to secure product. When COVID-19 first struck, Ngwa was in Cameroon, where he found himself marooned for four months, staring at the walls of his hotel room. He hasn’t been back since and he reports that delays in shipments have become highly disruptive to his business.
Ngwa spoke to Sahan Journal about what he’s learned about adapting to the market, hiring workers, and becoming a Minnesotan.
You can go home again—until you can’t: After I got my degrees, I wanted to go back home. But once you are taken out of your comfort zone and you learn something new, you don’t always fit where you left. I was in between and in betwixt.
Sometimes the right employee is a temp: I work 12 to 14 hours a day. I have one full-time worker, which is me. I would say that I’m a master cleaner, master roaster, master buyer.
When shipments come, I go to temporary agencies. The packaging is done by temporary labor.
Relationships are important, too: When I started out, I saw coffeehouses all over the metro area and I gave them very lavish samples. I would say 100 percent of them loved the coffee. But when I came back to take orders, it was always, “Sorry we’re going to continue with the other guys.”
The first two years, I almost lost everything. I lost so much weight, so much revenue. I almost gave up until one of my friends, who met me in my quest to look for funding from NGOs, came to me and said, “You know what? I’m gonna help.”
I told him, “Take 20 percent of what you sell.” That’s how I was able to survive.
The best plans are fluid: If you go to the Somali malls, the coffee houses there are supplied by me. That’s a good chunk of change. For many years, I concentrated on just selling to restaurants.
That sustained me until the pandemic hit. I realized I had to try to get back into retail. Now we are pushing our coffee on the internet.
Looking forward, a dream to expand: My plan for the future is to inundate the metro area with Safari Pride. Right now, it’s only the block around me that smells my coffee. Most of the metro doesn’t know that my coffee exists. I have never used my roasting equipment to its capacity. It’s like brand new.
We can roast about a ton plus a day. I have survived on roasting an average of 200 pounds every two weeks. The capacity is waiting to be used.