Caffeinated Development: Student's Startup Promotes Growth, Stability in Yemen

Student Success Story

Anda Greeney

Master of Liberal Arts, Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture Degree

Anda Greeney, a graduate of Wesleyan University who served in Air Force military intelligence, has found a path toward a career in entrepreneurship and international development at Harvard Extension School.  

Anda Greeney sells coffee. But he’s not exactly a barista. He founded Mokha Origin, a startup aimed at promoting growth and stability in Yemen by providing a market for Yemeni coffee in the United States.

The company is gaining momentum. In spring 2014 it was one of 10 finalists (out of 133 entrants) to compete in the President’s Challenge at Harvard. The University-wide competition, organized by the Harvard innovation lab (i-lab), encourages and rewards cross-disciplinary social entrepreneurship. 

Sowing the Seeds for the Future

For Greeney, who is currently taking graduate courses at Harvard Extension School, the seed for Mokha Origin was first planted in his mind while he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University.

During a semester abroad in Sweden, Greeney found himself in the Stockholm Arlanda airport reading The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs. In his book, Sachs argues that development outcomes could be improved with an infusion of more foreign aid. That inspired Greeney to earmark 10 percent of his earnings for charitable purposes. For years to come, he would wrestle with how best to allocate that money.

After graduating from college, among other jobs, Greeney led wine-tasting tours in California and worked in military intelligence with the US Air Force. He emerged from these experiences with insights into the beverage industry and the security situation in Southwest Asia, both of which would come to serve him well.

INSIGHTS, IN SITU

Another book that influenced Greeney’s interest in development was Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, whose title refers to the poorest people and countries in the world. As he left the Air Force, Greeney was eager to visit some of these countries, including Afghanistan and Yemen, to better understand them.

Yemen was off-limits at the time due to visa limitations. But Greeney leapt at the opportunity to visit Afghanistan with a friend from the Washington, DC-based Afghanistan Study Group. This was Greeney’s first visit to a war-torn country, and he was fascinated by the optimism of everyone he met.

“While there, I had a very interesting insight,” he recalls. During a conversation in English with five Afghan students he met on the street, Greeney was shocked to discover that “they had never spoken to an English speaker. They had never spoken to an American. This was despite hundreds of thousands of troops there.” The divide between civilian and military spheres was immense.

On another instance in Afghanistan, Greeney joined an American nonprofit organization in delivering donated books to a school. The experience left him feeling uncomfortable, and he questioned whether such a donation actually empowered the recipients. He admits, “half the reason we were there was to get the photo and make people in the US feel good.”

These two encounters solidified Greeney’s interest in market-based solutions to development. To him, such approaches are the most effective way to help lift people out of poverty and provide them with sustainable support.

EVOLUTION OF AN IDEA

Greeney, a self-described itinerant, would go on to spend six months in France and a short time in Chicago working for Teach for America before finding his way to Harvard Extension and Mokha Origin.

Greeney had been considering enrolling in a master’s program, but he didn’t want to make a full-time commitment. He wanted to study at a prestigious institution, and he was attracted to the flexibility that Harvard Extension School offered. Greeney moved to Boston on September 2 and started Extension courses on September 3.

During his first semester, Greeney wrote a paper that gave Mokha Origin momentum. Yemen has struggled with civil strife and massive unemployment (60 percent among young men, according to Greeney). Through a market-based venture, Greeney saw the potential for an economic engine and an alternative to military intervention in the country.

After reading the paper, Greeney’s professor told him about the Harvard innovation lab. Greeney attended a couple of talks at the i-lab, then presented his idea in 60 seconds at a November Pitch, Mix, and Match event. From there, he built a team with members from five Harvard schools.

GROWING A COMPANY, AND A NETWORK

Greeney and the other team members have embarked on building a business alongside continuing their studies at Harvard. As a President’s Challenge finalist, Mokha Origin received $5,000 in seed funding to push its project forward.

The team has forged strong connections to advance the idea. Among their advisors is Michael Maxey, a senior agricultural advisor for Yemen at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Maxey has helped Mokha Origin navigate the bureaucracy inherent in doing business in a developing country.

Reflecting on the connections he’s made across Harvard, Greeney says, “It’s been great to feel plugged in to the Harvard community.” Mokha Origin has hosted events at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Harvard Business School. One member of the team is a fellow Extension School student, Sowymyan Jegatheesan, living in Canada, who Greeney met in person for the first time last month. Mokha Origin has also enlisted the talents of three students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in creating a refreshed brand identity.

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING

To secure a niche in the United States’ $28 billion coffee market, the Mokha Origin team wants to raise the profile of Yemeni coffee. Some of the world’s first coffee production and trade occurred in Yemen, with a hub at the port city of Al-Mokha. Mokha beans have a chocolate flavor. As a result, the chocolate-flavored espresso drink we enjoy today is called a mocha.

There is a hurdle. Most Yemeni coffee, Greeney says, is blended with inferior Ethiopian beans. To ensure that Mokha Origin is selling a pure product, Mokha Origin partnered with World Coffee Research at Texas A&M University to use Near-infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to compare the reflectance of Yemeni and Ethiopian beans. The researchers were surprised to find quite distinct reflectance profiles. The Mokha Origin team plans to use this authentication technique going forward.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Mokha Origin has already seen success selling its coffees on Amazon and through its website. And it’s currently negotiating deals with local retailers.

As for Greeney himself, he would like to build the business to $5 million in five years—all while earning a Master of Liberal Arts in the field of history at the Extension School.

He encourages other Extension School students to get involved with the President’s Challenge. “Even if you don’t have your own idea, you can join an existing team,” he says.

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