A Vancouver startup launches a new category with an old plant

How one Vancouver startup is creating a whole new beverage category

How one Vancouver startup is creating a whole new beverage category

In August 2015, Arnaud Petitvallet and Max Rivest were visiting coffee farmers in Nicaragua, looking for a partner for their startup venture. They had an unusual proposition. Rather than the cherries, which contain green coffee beans, they wanted the leaves.

“We were two young gringos, and these farmers had been doing the same thing in their families for 200 years,” Rivest recalls. “We were like, ‘yeah, the leaf.’ They were like, ‘you’re crazy.'”

But one farmer, Enrique Ferrufino, did not have reservations. An agricultural sciences grad who had worked in research at Purdue University and in banking in Nicaragua, Ferrufino had decided two years ago to return full-time to his family’s coffee farm. He was interested in innovative ways to change the labour-intensive, small-margin, cash-thin model of the coffee farm.

“It’s merging two big cultures, coffee and tea, in one single product,” explains
Ferrufino, now the third partner in Wize Monkey, on a visit to the company’s downtown Vancouver office. “So I can see how the industry can be revolutionized, but also how farmers will be less dependent on credit.”

The idea for Wize Monkey developed in 2013. Rivest, now 28, had left Vancouver to pursue a master’s degree in international business at the Kedge Business School in Bordeaux, where he met Petitvallet, now 26, a native of La Rochelle, France. While developing a business plan for one of their courses, Rivest came across a study that affirmed the antioxidant benefit of coffee leaf tea. While the beverage has a long tradition in Ethiopia, no one seemed to be selling it.

The pair first went to Nicaragua in August 2013 and found a farmer who could supply them with the sun-dried coffee leaves, which they bagged and packaged. They finished their degrees a few months later and moved to Vancouver—selling the tea online, with first-day orders totaling $3,000. But they grew unsatisfied with that supplier and returned to Nicaragua two years later, where they signed a deal with Ferrufino.

Petitvallet describes Ferrufino’s farm, which comprises 1,000 acres of coffee trees and 1,000 acres of protected forest, as “the Google of coffee farms.” On-site are a health clinic, a daycare and a school run by an NGO for the children of farm workers.

Ferrufino saw the potential new revenue streams. Coffee beans are harvested for three months, after which most of the workers are laid off; coffee leaves, however, are selectively picked throughout the year. Coffee roasting is done by companies, often abroad, who retain value-added expertise—but coffee leaves must be processed soon after harvesting. The three partners worked together to develop new flavours—including mango, Earl Grey and jasmine—with all processing done on Ferrufino’s farm, which employs between 200 and 300 people.

Now Wize Monkey has investors and a spot on shelves at several B.C. grocery stores. According to Rivest, they are fending off inquiries for bulk orders from multinational companies, for fear of being undercut. “We’re creating a category, so we have to keep the bar very high.” 

Sources: Enrique Ferrufino, International Coffee Organization