Originally from Austria, Ms. Birgit Lienhart-Gyawali had never imagined that life would bring her to Nepal. With an interest in international relations and sociology, she came to Nepal in 2003 for development work. She always wanted to impact people’s lives and bring a change. While in Nepal, she visited a coffee farm in 2010 where she learnt about the art of making coffee. From then on, a sip of coffee held a new meaning for her than just a drink. In Gyanmandala, she first started offering a cup of coffee to people, which later turned into a community. With her passion and a newfound purpose, she started Kar.ma Coffee officially in 2011.
A few weeks back we connected with Ms. Leinhart-Gywali who shared about her decade-long entrepreneurial journey in Nepal.
Read our conversation to know more!
Can you tell me more about the company?
Kar.ma Coffee was a new concept in 2011. There weren’t many coffee shops back then. It garnered a lot of media attention due to its unique concept at that time. I used to learn what is working and what isn’t through customer feedback. Since the beginning, we have never compromised on our principle. We intend to show people about the whole coffee chain and promote a circular economy. Kar.ma Coffee utilizes all the by-products of the coffee and makes several creative products to reduce wastage. I used coffee as a means to bring development by utilizing resources properly and creating jobs.
How do you source the materials?
Our coffees are sourced from small villages in the districts such as Ilam, Kaski, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Nuwakot, etc. We bring the coffees in the parchment stage and later process them in Kathmandu. We never mix beans from different sources so we know exactly where the beans came from. It is an expensive process, but we emphasize highly on quality. This also allows us to inform buyers on where the beans are from and how many families are supported by this coffee production.
For handicrafts, most of them are designed by me. I aim to utilize all the coffee by-products in a creative way to provide more opportunities to people. I work with artists and other companies to refine the designs and make prototypes. All the products are made for Kar.ma Coffee itself and we order more pieces as the demand increases.
What is the inspiration behind the name of your business?
My husband and I wanted a name that could capture our philosophy of doing this business. Every little step in our business is an effort to make an impact on people’s lives, the environment, and the economy. Karma seemed to reflect this meaning. However, it was a commonly used name, so we put a dot in between to make it more interesting. It has become a conversation starter now.
What are the products currently being offered?
We have two outlets at the moment i.e. in Gyanmandala and Boudha. We have shifted The Hub from Thamel to Boudha. We work with trusted partners outside Kathmandu who offer kar.ma Coffee and sell our products such as Hotel Karuna in Pokhara. Besides running the outlets we export coffee and our accessories. With the HUB concept, we include other business initiatives complementing our philosophy and values. During the lockdown, we started with tourism partners KarnaliDirect and ManangDirect to support the farmers in those regions who have no tourists right now and ‘to make local sexy’. Local produce and products are sustainable, healthy, and good for the environment. They deserve more appreciation and all Nepalis should feel proud to buy high-quality products that are homegrown and homemade.
Who are your allies in running the business?
We are working with more than 30 producers and artisans for our handicraft products and source the coffee from more than 900 farmers families.
Who is your target market?
I wanted to create a new coffee culture. I come from a country with a long tradition of coffee houses as a space to hang out, be creative, meet others, and enjoy coffee. Initially, a lot of expats were attracted to Kar.ma Coffee beside the people working in Gyanmandala. Soon more and more Nepalis visited us. We always had a good mix as everyone is always welcome. Nowadays, it’s more Nepalis than foreigners. The local market makes us survive the pandemic.
What were the main challenges in starting this venture?
The most challenging part was the difference in work ethics. I come from a culture with vastly different work etiquette than Nepal. During the inception, many things that I believed to be natural were not found in the Nepali work culture. Hence, I learnt ways to plan and get work done. This applied to working with my staff, partners, suppliers, etc. I was open to unlearn and relearn based on the requirement.
How do you deal with competition?
There are coffee shops in every nook and corner. The competition is at its peak. Nevertheless, it is more essential now to stand out through quality and consistency. If I copy what others are doing, then I know I will not survive in this market. I always stick to the things that have been loved and introduce new things which are different than others. The growing entrepreneurial culture in Nepal motivates me to be more creative; thus the healthy competition has also made this journey more exciting.
Where can the customers find your products?
We are currently operating two outlets: The Hub (Boudha) and Kar.ma Coffee (Gyanandala, Patan). We also sell our products through our website. Consumers can also contact us on Facebook and Instagram to know more about our products.
How has this entrepreneurial journey been so far for you?
I have a purpose each day and it keeps me going. The love for the work itself leads you to conquer challenges that come with it. After the earthquake in 2015, Nepal underwent several hurdles and challenges. Having survived those situations, I realized that I can continue no matter what. I believe not everyone can commit and have the energy to run a business. It needs a lot of time, energy, and commitment to survive.
Is there any suggestion you would like to give to other emerging social entrepreneurs?
It is essential to be convinced about your idea and commit to it. Although you don’t know everything, it can be learnt. However, it is crucial that you are ready for this rollercoaster journey. Being an entrepreneur means giving the majority part of your day and life to it. If you truly love your idea, you should go for it.
Want to try Nepali Coffee while contributing to job creation and local production? Order your Kar.ma Coffee now!