On International Women’s Day, March 8, two US-based Ugandan sisters in their mid-20s launched a specialty coffee company called Mutima Coffee.
The company went on to sell more than 200 bags of its coffee, seven days after launching pre-order sales. What is worth noting is that Mutima Coffee exclusively sells Ugandan coffee, specifically arabica beans from Mt Elgon.
Sheila and Sharon Kasasa currently run an online store for Mutima Coffee, from where they retail roasted Ugandan coffee beans in the US and Europe.
The two sisters were born in Uganda and moved to the US with their parents before the older one (Sheila) made 10 years old. Before they left the country, the little girls were pupils at Kampala Parents School. They spent their childhood in Maryland and moved to Washington DC as young adults.
Sharon Kasasa’s love for coffee
Sharon Kasasa’s love for coffee started at university. She had taken coffee from her early teens but only as a ritual; something she did with her father in the mornings before going to school. For years she didn’t even know why she drank coffee, nor did she know how it truly tasted. All she knew is that she found it comforting to hold a warm mug of coffee in her hands.
Then during her university days, she started drinking coffee for the caffeine delivery rather than as a mere ritual. For the first time, she tried it without any additive and discovered just how bitter coffee can be. She hated it.
“Everywhere I went, [bitter] seemed to be the standard, so I came to accept it as a fact. I even became really good at not scrunching my face up when I drank a black cup of coffee. ‘Bitter coffee, it’s just another tragedy of adulthood’, I thought,” she says.
“My day of salvation came when a friend of mine prepared a cup of coffee using freshly roasted and ground beans. He did this thing where he sprinkled a bit of salt in with the grounds to “cut the bitterness,’ as he put it. I didn’t think much of it until I went to take my first sip. I don’t remember having smelled such deliciousness from a cup of coffee.”
Sharon was hooked. In hindsight, she understood why so many people in her known universe had such a close affinity to coffee.
“That moment piqued my interest in bold, yet great tasting coffee. I started visiting local coffee shops and spent hours engaging with baristas and shop owners.
I gravitated towards cafés that sourced small-batch single origin beans, because after years of drinking coffee, I had finally found what I liked; no longer a bitter acceptance in my daily routine, [coffee] became more than a thing. It became the thing,” she says.
Sheila Kasasa business acumen
Sheila Kasasa, Sharon’s older sister, brings on board her business savviness. Before she became a co-CEO of Mutima Coffee together with her younger sister, she was already a CEO of her other company, FutureFIRST, which she registered back in 2004.
The Washington DC-based company trains people into the tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem by providing them with skills and networking opportunities.
In 2017, FutureFIRST launched the DC Youth Corps, a programme that has raised more than $550,000 (more than Shs2b) in funding to end the economic divide of youth of colour in Washington DC through creating tech-focused pathways.
Her company boasts of partnering with Fortune 500 companies such as Google and Amazon in several undertakings.
In short, she understands big business. And she brings that advantage to Mutima Coffee.
The two sisters recently chose to combine their different passions and complement each other’s strengths and create Mutima Coffee, a company that might not just be a game changer for them, but a much needed boost for the Ugandan coffee farmers.
“Mutima Coffee would not be here today if it were not for the lessons learned along the way. My first opportunity for growth came early during college when I began dreaming of sharing the beauty of Uganda with the world,” Sharon says.
“At this time in my life, I was fortunate enough to have travelled across Europe, Africa and America. I was enthralled by the people, cultures, languages and rituals I discovered all around the world. I wanted people to experience that same awe in Uganda.
“As it turned out, Sheila also had similar dreams. So we embarked on a journey to start an international young professional placement agency that doubled as a cultural immersion programme based in Uganda.
By 2011, we made significant headway and established connections with different businesses across Uganda, who were interested in hosting interns from across the world. In retrospect, the most significant barrier to our success was time commitment. As college students, none of us had the bandwidth to take on such a venture.
“In 2019, I left a career as a data analyst to open a Home Care Agency—again with family. Beyond owning my own business, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable populations—seniors and the caregivers who dedicate their lives to care for them. While I struggled to get the business off the ground with limited resources, it was clear to me that it wasn’t for lack of effort. Working hard does not automatically translate to rewards such as success. We have become accustomed to immediate gratification, whereas entrepreneurship requires diligence, commitment and consistency.
“My current commitment is Mutima Coffee. I am dedicating all my time and energy into engaging with our core customers. My previous ventures have prepared me to launch Mutima Coffee and take the company to new heights while highlighting the beauty of Uganda.
“Understanding how to work with family while navigating the complexities of business operations comes with experience. How that experience is acquired does matter. The outcome of those previous experiences can be outweighed by the lessons learned.
Today, I am grateful for the trials and tribulations of my past experiences and the foundation formed due to their lessons.”
The entrepreneurial sisters come from a long line of female business people. Their maternal grandmother, Mary Nakato Nakiwala, opened her first business in 1972, soon after then president Idi Amin handed the economy to Ugandans after expelling Asians.
She had been a school dropout, having stopped at P3, but Nakiwala would do what few women of the time could even think of. She opened a shop in Kampala and ran it through the turbulent 1970s and 80s.
Having gained enough experience as a businesswoman over the years, she opened a block factory near Kampala in 1996. Today she employs more than 200 employees.
Their mother, inspired by her mother’s uncanny ability to break barriers, and her values of patience, hard work and self-confidence, also chose to become a businesswoman. She owns two elderly retirement homes in Washington DC.
“As you can well imagine, we had no choice but to be inspired by my mother and by Jajja,” Sheila says.
The two are co-CEOs.
Sunday Monitor sought a comment from the Uganda Coffee Federation and Group chairman, who also happens to be the CEO of the Africa Coffee Academy, Robert Waggwa Nsibirwa.
“The two sisters are amazing young Ugandans. Shelia Kasasa travels regularly back to Uganda. She is a business person by intuition or by blood. When we first met, she wanted to know if her programme FutureFIRST could work with my programme Vijana Poa. At a later date, she turned up at the African Coffee Academy, we had a chat and several more later. She was looking for where she could fit in the value chain of coffee,” Waggwa Nsibirwa says.
“She was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable, businesswise. The name of the business was to be Mutima Coffee. I saw that her heart was in the right place, and I chose to support them. I gave them as much information, as much connection as possible, to deliver Mutima Coffee in the US. They want to bring Ugandan coffee alive in the shelves of America. Coffee with a story behind it.