Part II of our two-part conversation with Café Kwae founder Yvette Ansah. Missed the first? Read here.
There’s a throng of new coffee shops in Accra and leading the pack is Café Kwae, a one-month old business started by Yvette Ansah that is quickly becoming the preferred “chill” spot for Accra’s professionals, creatives and globetrotters.
Well-Being & Lessons Learned
Registering Café Kwae might have been a walk in the park, but the same cannot be said for building the coffee shop. From previously enthusiastic family members who no longer return calls to workers who subtly undermine one’s intelligence and capabilities as a woman, and a greedy contractor who absconded with her money , Yvette has seen it all.
“I feel a lot of time and money was wasted by me feeling like I wasn’t qualified to give an opinion [on building and construction] because it wasn’t my area per say. Even though it was my project and I was paying them I felt I wasn’t qualified enough to tell them to change stuff or to tell them I didn’t like things. They would say things like ‘Madam you are a woman you don’t know these things.’ I fell into it, just because I didn’t have enough confidence and because I had never done this before.”
Believing everything happens for a reason, she has used these experiences to hone her business acumen. Next time, she intends to hire a building consultant, source her own construction materials, and do due diligence on contractors, even those referred by trusted people.
When I ask Yvette to run me through her preparations for opening shop, I expect the usual details about how hard it is to find well-trained workers who understand the importance of putting the customer first and making sure service is top-notch. I’m not too far off. Yvette secured the services of “a fabulous lady called Gladys” to train her staff over a three-week period and walk them through the menu:
“From the get-go I made my workers understand that we are here for the customer. I have my pet peeves when I go to different restaurants, so I make sure that all those pet peeves are addressed here as much as we can.”
What I didn’t expect however was a commitment to continuous learning – one so strong the Master’s degree-holder took on brief job stints at three coffee shops in England to gain first-hand understanding of how things work. As far as Yvette is concerned, learning is a vital part of her business model, sustainability, and social responsibility:
“I have a young wait staff and it’s intentional because I also wanted to make an impact on peoples’ lives that way. Issues will continue to arise that we could not have anticipated when we were doing the main training. It’s a very important part of what I’m doing, for the standards to be high. And I will continue to work on it for ever and ever.”
In addition to reading hospitality books like Danny Mayer’s Setting the Table and following websites like the Business Insider, Yvette draws inspiration from her role model Oprah Winfrey, business and life coach Marie Forleo, and Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist. She also has a ‘no negativity’ rule for herself that she adheres to:
“I always try to stay in a positive zone through empowerment and self help. Doing what we’re doing in any part of the world is hard, but on our side of the world it is harder. I intentionally cut myself off any negative situation or vibe. It’s so important that, on a certain level, I’m sane.” [ Click here for a health + lifestyle tip]
Women in Business & Café Kwae Ten Years On
It is quickly approaching midday and the early birds are already making their way to Café Kwae ahead of the lunch rush. Yvette has excused herself a few times during our conversation to welcome customers, respond to her team’s questions and give direction, sign off on an invoice – her demeanor always cheerful. It’s clear she enjoys what she is doing even though it has only been a few weeks.
“I’ve been blown away by all the support from the WGHS network,” she admits for the upteeenth time. My designer-photographer friend, who graciously agreed to take shots for our feature, rolls his eyes and mutters under his breath, “You Gey Hey girls”.
Yvette and I exchange a knowing look and giggle at his mock exasperation. Like myself, she is an alumnae or ‘old girl’ of Wesley Girls High School or Wey Gey Hey as it is popularly known; a premier girls school located in Cape Coast, Ghana’s unofficial education hub. It’s a badge Yvette owns and wears proudly:
“Gey Hey has shown me so much love. It’s been phenomenal. I always joke that the best thing my parents ever did was send me to WGHS. But I’m totally right – 100%. That network and that mindset, I can’t stress it enough. Women supporting women.”
The mindset Yvette refers to is the can-do attitude (and occasional over-achiever tendencies) graduates of the school are known for. Her comment leads nicely into my next question on the role of women in business and Africa’s development. For the first time since our chat began, she seems hesitant, confused even:
“I don’t know oh. I don’t know the statistics but apparently there are a lot of women in business. For me, especially as an Ashanti, our women tend to be very strong and we usually carry the family. Personally, my mum is a businesswoman, my aunties are businesswomen. So, to be honest, I don’t know any different.”
Understandable. Yvette’s close circle of friends is made up of “girl bosses” – including a nuclear engineer turned pilot and her best friend who runs KUA, a handbag and jewelry design outfit – and she was raised to believe she could achieve anything she set her mind to. To her the answer is a no-brainer: Being a woman isn’t limiting.
In this vein, she believes women returnees like her have an obligation to help create opportunities and impact in their countries. It’s a conviction she takes to heart with her 15-member team at Café Kwae:
“For me, it’s very important to empower my staff. I always tell [them], if you are here in two years doing exactly the same job then we have a problem. Because that means I haven’t done something right.”
Still gazing through the looking glass, I ask Yvette where she sees herself and Café Kwae in ten or twenty years. “I see myself living in my apartment in Paris. I would have left this country and all its problems.” She laughs at my bemused look, then explains how she hopes to take time out at some point to study the art of dessert making – ideally in Paris or Austria – come back and spread that knowledge someway, perhaps, even contributing to the diversification of Ghana’s dessert offerings:
“We have local desserts – nkate [groundnut] cake, kube [coconut] cake, all these peanut brittles. We have atadwe milk that is the tiger nut custard type thing – but these are not always presented in the most exciting ways. So, maybe we can find ways of incorporating African ingredients in an interesting way.”
One would expect grand expansion plans for Café Kwae, especially after Yvette lauded Vida e Caffé on its apparent success at franchising in Ghana. But the French enthusiast succeeded in surprising me yet again:
“I’m not big on chains and franchises. I can see myself doing something similar in Abidjan or Lagos or Dakar, but aside that I just want this place to have a following that will always be loyal, people who feel like this is their spot. If I can do that then I’m cool.”
Small, quality-focused and personal it is.
Behind the Seens: Yvette Ansah on On Gratitude, Learning and Courage
After a break to take photos of Yvette and her team, we settle back down to discuss her thoughts on life and living. Her excitement is evident when I ask what she calls “Oprah questions”.
“This whole process has taught me how loved I am. I am very grateful for my family and friends. I am so loved. It’s something I don’t take for granted at all, at all, at all. I think that’s what I’m most grateful for: my family and the confidence they instill in me. They make me feel like I can do anything. They really are my cheerleaders. If I’m wrong, they tell me.”
“I intend to learn, learn. This is a new territory, unlike law or international relations where you can read the book and understand the context. How does Café Kwae become that café that always has a core following enough to make the business viable? There are cute little places that I go to and I say, “This is my spot”. That is how I want us to be: the coffee shop down the road.”
“I could write a whole book on this. I have learned that courage doesn’t mean that you don’t feel the fear. It means you feel the fear and you do it anyway. Because you will always feel the fear. It’s being able to say I’m still scared, I don’t know how this will turn out, but this is what I want to do and I know that within my soul I will not be happy unless I do it so I’m going to do it. Debt be damned, rent be damned. There was a point I used to say even if the dollar gets to a 100, I’m doing this thing.
I always say with my friend, I’m doing this thing until the last foreigner leaves. A little controversial, yes, but this is not their country so if they can find a reason to be in and thrive in our country, why am I getting up and leaving? Yep. Till the last foreigner leaves we’re here.”
Through the highs, the lows, the challenges and opportunities that make living in Ghana the love-hate relationship it is, Yvette and Café Kwae intend to be around for a long time, pushing Ghanaian and women-owned businesses.
Interview & write-up by Jemila Abdulai. Images by Ghana In HD
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.