David Wilding-Davies is a Canadian coffee entrepreneur who has created a niche for himself in an already saturated market.
His Ashanti Coffee Estate brand is named for the African plantation where he grows and harvests beans that are then shipped to Canada for roasting and packaging.
“Our tagline is ‘From farm to cup,’ and that really captures it,” says Wilding-Davies, who oversees the growing, importation, roasting, serving and selling of his coffee through supermarkets across Ontario, as well as three franchised Ashanti Coffee bars.
The first Ashanti café opened in Thornbury, Ont., a picturesque town on the shores of Georgian Bay, in 2006.
Wilding-Davies, a native of Vancouver, is a 47-year-old former equestrian who moved to the horse country area after representing Canada at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and the world championships as a member of the Canadian eventing team.
He first fell in love with Africa during a backpacking vacation there in 1991. In 1998, he sold his home in Canada and moved to Zimbabwe to stake roots.
“I ended up teaching riding and making some great friendships. Most of the people I met were farming,” Wilding-Davies says. “I was impressed by the fertility of the land and the agricultural infrastructure.
“When I realized that land was affordable, I set about realizing my dream of being a farmer,” he says. “I fell in love with a coffee farm, Ashanti Coffee Estate.”
The Ashanti farm was originally 325 acres, and Wilding-Davies eventually acquired close to 700 more and employed 250 people. Business was good, but soon trouble brewed.
He lost most of his claim to President Robert Mugabe’s infamous land redistribution campaign, which compelled white landowners to hand over their properties to the state.
“Even though I had a High Court Order preventing me from being interfered with, I had land taken from me,” Wilding-Davies says. “For both me and my workers it was devastating.”
Down, but not out.
Back in Canada, Wilding-Davies has since teamed up with two other farmers in Zimbabwe also with reduced acreage. They have pooled their coffee resources to keep the Ashanti brand alive. The cup is far from empty.
You call yourself an entrepreneur as well as a farmer. Which role matters more to you?
As a farmer in Zimbabwe, I grew two hundred tons of coffee each year and sold it through a London-based coffee broker. Once the green coffee was loaded on a truck and heading out the farm laneway, my involvement with the coffee stopped. I loved farm life and took great pride in producing excellent coffee. I still think of myself as a coffee farmer.
When did your role change?
In the 2000s, Zimbabwe fell into a time of enormous political strife. To deprive the opposition party of its huge support base in the commercial farming area, President Mugabe launched a violent campaign of farm invasion. He achieved his objective of removing opposition party supporters from the farming areas but caused the collapse of commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe. I found myself farming a fraction of the land I used to.
How did you endure, and how would you advise other entrepreneurs who might find themselves losing ground just as they are starting out?
I thought all was lost. I also found it hard to live in a country run by a repressive and violent dictator where there was no rule of law.
Things ultimately worked out well, and probably for the better. I would tell others to accept that things don’t always progress in a nice linear manner. Often opportunities arise out of what may initially appear as failure. It is important to stay resolute and open minded to see the opportunities. Be adaptive.
What opportunities did you see?
I returned to Canada and set about trying to make a livelihood out of my much smaller coffee crop. I bought a roaster and started wholesaling packaged coffee under the name of my farm, Ashanti Coffee Estate. People loved the taste. With the collapse of agriculture in Zimbabwe, I realized I had exclusivity on Zimbabwean coffee in Canada.
I soon had a steady stream of people coming by the roasting facility to buy coffee and to learn about our “farm to cup” story. A cafe was a natural progression. We set the cafe up to connect the coffee back to Africa and the people who work on the farm. We now have three franchised Ashanti Cafes with owners who are passionate about coffee and Africa.
What's your market?
People who love coffee but who also have a genuine interest in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. They are people who are interested in the world around them.
How did you get financing?
Getting finance is always an obstacle. Interestingly, it was much easier to borrow money in Zimbabwe at the time than in Canada. Maybe banks allow their subsidiaries in developing countries to take more risk.
What words of wisdom would you give others wanting to do business abroad?
The network of friends and business acquaintances that a person develops is of huge importance. You know who to trust, who to turn to for advice, and who can get things done. This is not easy to achieve in a foreign country. I lived in Zimbabwe and really became part of the community there. I feel very comfortable doing business there today. I do not think I would if I had not lived in the country.
Who are your partners in Zimbabwe?
As our business grew in Canada, my own production of coffee in Zimbabwe was declining. I had to secure product for the future. I partnered with the two remaining coffee farmers in Zimbabwe. It was easy, as we were close friends and I had huge respect for their farming practices. They were also impressed with Canada and what Ashanti Coffee was doing here. Both had won awards for quality and agricultural stewardship. They have been enthusiastic about the partnership.
How often do you go back?
I travel to Zimbabwe once a year. I enjoy spending time on coffee farms. While there, I go to the rural schools we support through Ashanti Coffee. A little goes a long way in Africa, and our efforts are much appreciated.
Who are your partners in Canada?
We are lucky to have some great retailers sell our coffee, and a great distributor with [Quebec-based] I-D Foods. I roast and package the coffee, and it gets shipped to I-D Foods and they take care of the rest.
In the cafes, franchising was the model for us. We plan to expand our cafes only at the rate of which we meet potential franchisees that share our vision.
It’s been quite the journey -- and all for a cup of coffee. Has it been worth it?
Yes. For me the biggest feeling of success comes from going into the cafes and seeing the owners feeling successful and the cafes filled with buzz, laughter and friendship.
This interview has been edited and condensed.