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.
Meeting Yvette Ansah
I found out about Café Kwae (pronounced kwˈaɪ), or rather its USB wall sockets, three weeks ago. My curiosity about the Ghanaian establishment pushing the envelope on meeting customer needs got the best of me and a week later I scurried across town to see for myself. Live and colored, the USB wall sockets were there, but ultimately it was Yvette Ansah who won me over.
“I’m just a chill girl, living my dream right now, just trying to brighten my little corner with this little cafe that I have. Spreading the joy of good food, that’s what I want to do.”
Yvette’s pixie-cut framed face and wide smile was the first thing I noticed as I walked through the doors. Maybe, she’s a customer who has mistaken me for a friend, I thought as I smiled back at her. Making my way to a table across from her, I hoped it wouldn’t be too awkward once she realized I wasn’t the friend she was expecting. She came over to my table moments later, introduced herself – simply: Yvette – and asked if I needed anything. Probably the manager, I told myself after she left. Why else would she be so nice? Half an hour later, I found out the joke was on me. She owned the place.
Since then, I had been trying to put my finger on what makes Café Kwae feel so different, alien even. Stepping out of the waning Tuesday morning downpour, I enter the warmth and warm brown tones of the coffee shop set within the impressive One Airport Square ‘zig zag’ building. It hits me the moment I see Yvette’s smiling face at the door: Café Kwae has soul, a raison d’être: the clear imprint of its owner’s influence and presence.
One of four siblings born to an Ashanti-Akyem family, Yvette Ansah is a down-to-earth person with a welcoming smile and bright eyes; her friends affectionately describe her as “not correct and not normal”. Yvette moved back to Ghana in 2011 with two degrees, law and international relations, in hand. Shortly after, she set up Fresh Bites, an Accra-based healthy fast food and delivery business. Successful in its own right, it was only a dress rehearsal for Café Kwae, her main act:
“You know when you have something in your mind’s eye? I always knew I wanted to do something like this. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but I knew I wanted to create a space centered around delicious, simple food where people could just chill.”
The Café Kwae Ethos
It is clear from the onset of our conversation that Yvette’s appreciation for people, travel and of course, good food is what drives Café Kwae. As many introverts will attest, myself included, the search for the right amount of solitude can be hard, particularly in a country like Ghana where everyone tends to know everyone and the boundaries of private and public are somewhat blurred. Besides Cuppa Cappuccino, Yvette couldn’t find many Ghanaian-owned spaces that reflect who she is: a loner who enjoys quiet spaces, books and coffee shops. To solve her dilemma, she decided to create something that would not just capture her love for travel, sappy music, Oprah, and Pinterest, but also rival coffee shops in cities like London or Brooklyn:
“I always felt it was important to create something of an international standard. I didn’t want them to say, ‘Oh this is good…for Ghana’ or ‘Oh it’s all right oh. Mhm, she tried.’ I didn’t want any of those half-assessed comments. If you get there you would say ‘This is cute, the place is nice.’ Period. You wouldn’t say, ‘The place is nice…for a Ghanaian’. You wouldn’t qualify it.”
More importantly, Yvette hopes to inspire and help change the current scenario where non-Ghanaians own most of the world-class businesses in Ghana’s hospitality industry:
“Sometimes I feel like this is a bit controversial to talk about, but I didn’t understand why there were no Ghanaians owning a lot of things in hospitality. We will do the waakye seller, we will do some cute pastry shops, that’s it. I wanted to also contribute to that chunk for people to say ‘A Ghanaian can do this thing and do it right.’”
And do it right she has. Everything about Café Kwae betrays the careful thought and attention to detail employed in creating this pleasant nook just minutes from Accra’s Kotoka International Airport. A creative/hipster’s dream. We are seated at a booth with a lightly colored wooden table. Against the wall are the USB ports, what Yvette calls “a little added touch” to make the coffee shop cozy. Overhead are the clever, low hanging jar-encased lights, and in the corner, overlooking the large, wooden family style dining table, is a bookshelf with a photo of her father who passed away over a decade ago.
Yvette was very close to her late father and named Café Kwae (which means ‘forest’ in Akan) after his grandmother. “I always knew that whatever I would did, would honor him. But his name was Joseph,” she laughs. “There was no way I was going to call it Café Joseph or Café Kwabena. The common thing we have is his grandmother’s name because that’s who I was named after.”
Setting Up a World Class Ghanaian Coffee Shop
Ghanaians may not be your die-hard coffee fans, but Yvette believes there’s room for a coffee shop culture in Ghana. The entry and quick expansion of South African coffee franchise Vida e Caffé seems to be a nod in that direction:
“I’m waiting for Starbucks to come any day now. I don’t think Ghanaians are coffee drinkers per say but I think we like things that revolve around food. Most of our social interactions happen around food. A coffee shop is another casual way for people to get together.”
Yvette started toying with her coffee shop idea after she discovered Pinterest in 2012. The visually focused social media site was the perfect platform to learn what coffee shop owners across the world were doing and use vision boards to fine-tune her concept for Café Kwae. That same year, the avid pinner indicated interest in the One Airport Square property that would house her coffee-colored dream. With delays and bouts of self-doubt, it wasn’t until October 2014 that she paid the commitment fee for the property and commenced with registering the company and securing the necessary permits.
“I’ve been through every single emotion you can think of. From thinking you have money to knowing you don’t have enough, people saying they will help to you calling them and they not picking up the phone,” she reminisced, a glint of tears in her eyes. “Once I said yes – once I allowed myself to get past the fear and say yes, so many things fell in place.”
One could say that the universe conspired on Yvette’s behalf. She not only raised the needed capital from her own finances, family and friends, but also got promotional offers on otherwise expensive materials for designing the coffee shop. She also hired an exceptional 15-member team:
“When we opened, I fought very hard before I was able to find my two chefs, but I knew I needed a sous-chef. I’m sitting here and this guy walks in – who is now in the kitchen – and he says, ‘Oh I hear there’s a restaurant opening and I’m looking for a job. It turns out he’s worked with a very good restaurant and he’s completely underpaid.”
Yvette’s commitment to going the extra mile for her customers is commendable. As someone who gets nervous when her phone charge goes below 40%, she is all too familiar with the hustle when it comes to keeping staying connected. That’s why she’s not too concerned about high electricity and Internet costs despite Ghana’s ongoing dumsor (energy crisis). To her, Café Kwae’s USB wall sockets and free wifi are a worthy investment for keeping customers comfortable:
“With our dumsor, everybody is walking around with a charger or some cord or the other. You don’t want to feel like ‘Oh, I have to go home to charge my phone’. Frankly most people have Surfline, dongles and all that stuff so that hour or two that they sit here is not really going to affect us. They can afford to pay for their Internet. It’s not like back in those days when you go to a place because you don’t have Internet at home or in offices.”
Together with her all-female chef team, Yvette has created a carefully honed menu that emphasizes simplicity and the use of local ingredients and foodstuff. With the exception of dairy products and coffee which she imports, all the food in the Café Kwae kitchen is sourced locally, either from vendors her family has bought from since she was a child or from various local markets – Agbogbloshie for vegetables, Tema for fish. This helps to keep Café Kwae’s import bill and overheads low, while supporting the local economy. Down the line, she hopes to introduce coffee from countries like Kenya and Rwanda to her customers.
“For me it was very important that I show people that good food is not complicated. You don’t have to have foie gras. Food can taste great if you use kpakpo shito, onions, garlic, cloves, hwenti, our prekese, and other herbs to flavor the food. It’s going to taste good.”
The support and reception has been exciting so far, but Yvette plans to keep her head on her shoulders, dig her heels in and soak up as much as she can. She already has her eye on a number of hospitality management courses which she hopes will help in not only making Café Kwae viable business-wise, but also maintain the “friendly coffee shop down the road” feel she has come to love.
In Part II of our conversation, Yvette and I discuss some of the challenges she encountered in setting up, the business insights she has gained, and what her experiences and time at Wesley Girls’ have taught her about life. Planning on visiting Café Kwae soon? Click here for a tip.
Interview & write-up by Jemila Abdulai. Images by Ghana In HD for Circumspecte