In my last post, I talked about numbers, about progress and about impact we could measure at Al Mokha. Economists tend to get wrapped up in numbers. This group of people is richer, you might say, and an economist wants to know, okay, but how do measure “rich”? Is it how much money or how many assets they have; is it how much they earn? How do you get a representative sample to answer your questions? How do you know that someone’s observable (or unobservable) characteristics aren’t influencing the way they perceive the question?
Economists have largely settled these questions. With a little effort, you could get to a point where you could measure “rich” satisfactorily, where you could answer the question of who is richest.
But some questions are simply unanswerable within the paradigm of statistical causality. Some of those questions are ones that Al Mokha wants to answer.
For instance, is coffee the best answer to Yemen’s woes?
As a development economist with interests that are a little outside the norm, I spend a lot of my day thinking about how to measure unmeasurable things. How prevalent is a certain belief? And how does it affect people’s behavior? Can one violent event, or experience, be objectively seen as worse or more violent than another? And if so, what determines that violence—scope, tenor, frequency? How do we fix it?
So, when Anda told me he wanted to start thinking more about impact and measurement at Al Mokha, I jumped up and down with glee. From the moment he and I first talked development and coffee in Cambridge almost a year ago, I’d been questioning, "cool, but how do you measure that?"
In Part I, Anda wrote about the perils of trying to be a salesperson / academic, and how that duality plays out in the business: investors want to see sales growth whereas economists (me!) want to see real, measureable change in things like poverty levels, in coffee production, in anything we can quantify with data.
So we're working towards that. In this post, Part 2, I introduce myself and in parts III- V we tackle some tough questions.
Well, who am I? If you're here frequently you know Anda and you've heard mention of some of his advisors (as he spins tales of sinking all his time into a startup). I'm the nerdy PhD obsessed with data and development. I have a doctoral degree in economics. I spend most of my time reading and writing papers on violence against women and children and female labor force participation. In the headline photo that's me doing research for the IRC in Nyarugusu, Tanzania. Basically, I spend a lot of time thinking about very economist-y things like incentives.
Two years ago, I founded a two-pronged enterprise with goals to be a successful coffee retailer and an entity that used our economic engine for the benefit of the people of Yemen. We call ourselves Al Mokha, Public Benefit Corp. and we source and market Yemen's World’s First Coffee™.
It has taken me two years to wrap my head around Al Mokha’s identity. Was I a coffee company? A development organization for a third world country? The reality is we are both, a startup with two faces; just like the Roman god Janus.
Let me illuminate.
We have two customers. The first is you, the consumer, and our product is our World’s First Coffee™. Our second customer is implied, and that’s the people of Yemen. If you turn our World’s First Coffee™ inside out, our product is life changing jobs. And here we can disappear down an academic rabbit hole.
A few years ago I read a fascinating study of poverty and decision fatigue in India. In the study researchers offered poor and wealthy buyers name-brand soap at a steep discount. The wealthy buyers made the purchase without second thought. It was a great deal. The poor buyers, however, agonized over the decision. The name-brand soap was truly a good deal but the soap still exceeded the price of generic. For those poor buyers the deal became a conundrum of brand-name prestige against money for food. The decision was tiring. But not only that, it left less energy for other decisions. Aha! Decision fatigue.
I shortly applied this decision lens to my own behavior. I observed how navigating life with little income was tiring. Every decision takes energy. Take the bus or walk or take a cab. Purchase name brand OJ on sale for $2.50 or store brand OJ slightly cheaper at $2.29? Should I buy a subscription to the Economist? These conundrums may appear petty but I began to realize their cost. Lack of resources meant less time and energy for bigger decisions.
Two years ago I had $500 and an idea to change the world. Today I have a $5000 hole, the website and branding you're looking at now, and the same idea to change the world. Speaking to my younger sister in regards to my progress, she said, "previously there was nothing and now there is something. That's pretty cool. I'll send your web address to my friends."
In her casual comment, she hit on two remarkable aspects of entrepreneurship: one, I had created something out of thin air; and two, in doing so, I had created a company that we could call my child. I've often heard that no one cares more about a company than the founder.
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