When Mhlengi Ngcobo and I meet at the CoCreate economic development hub in Stellenbosch, I can tell within minutes that this is a man that knows coffee. The owner of Coffee MM has made it his business to get to know the product that he roasts and brews inside out and it shows.

After being diagnosed with early onset hypertension as a teenager, Mhlengi was advised to avoid all caffeinated beverages. On a mission to educate himself about his health, he did everything he could to learn about caffeine and this evolved into a journey of learning about coffee. Armed with this knowledge, Mhlengi launched his business in 2018, initially buying raw beans and outsourcing the roasting process before selling the finished product online.

In 2019, Mhengi took the plunge and purchased his own roasting machine. It made both financial and business sense to have control of the roasting process and this gave Coffee MM an opportunity to grow and diversify.

I asked Mhlengi to tell me about the different types of coffee he stocks and how he makes his selections. He explained to me that there are two different types of coffees – the Arabica coffees that are grown at higher altitudes and the Robusta coffees that are grown at lower altitudes. He described how each coffee producer will have their harvest assessed and the product graded on what is known as the “cupping scale” with premium (AA Grade) coffees obtaining a rating of above 83% and specialist coffees with a rating of over 86%.

Coffee MM focuses on five single origin coffees. This means that each coffee is procured from a single harvest – with the countries of origin being Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Brazil, and Ethiopia. Each of these locations produce coffees with unique attributes and Mhlengi uses his own skill to roast the beans to perfection.

Originally from Vosloorus in Gauteng, Mhlengi now lives in Idas Valley, Stellenbosch. At the same time as he is marketing his own label, Mhlengi’s focus is on supporting small-scale coffee farmers on the African continent. He says, “coffee is a huge market, second only to oil, but there is almost no benefit to farmers and their workers. If you can empower the farmers, they can sell a finished product instead of only being able to supply the raw product to the market.” At the same time, customer satisfaction is a priority and whether you are one of Mhlengi’s corporate, hospitality, or food service clients, or whether you are an individual buying coffee for your home, Coffee MM aims to please.

With an experienced barista behind the counter at Coffee MM at the CoCreate Hub, Mhlengi is showcasing his products and providing a complete coffee experience. While making sure that the popular roasts are on the menu, Mhlengi hopes that customers will also be open to experiencing the different coffees on offer. As the Hub is ideally located between both the Stellenbosch University campus and the Stellenbosch central business district, Mhlengi believes that the coffee culture is for everyone.

This top physics student wanted to be an astronaut, but red tape and funding requirements to study Astronomy at Yale university were a barrier to entry. Instead, Mhlengi started his university studies with a bursary to study Civil Engineering, even though he knew this was not the field for him. His study journey has not been a straightforward one and is still a work in progress as he has to deal with financial exclusion and the need to prioritise work over academics at times. Mhlengi is, however, determined to complete his degree, even if just for himself.

Establishing a business while studying was not a decision Mhlengi took lightly, but after doing his research, he knew that coffee was a viable product. His entrepreneurial talent lay in starting a business without a substantial investment and with minimal overheads. As he grew his customer base, Mhlengi was able to invest in equipment and expand his horizons.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Mhlengi and has participated in many business programmes. He completed Basic Business Training with SETA, and was one of only 1,000 applicants accepted to participate in the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) entrepreneurship programme. He completed a leadership course with the African Leadership Academy, and through the facilitation of the Nedbank-funded Ranyaka Building Business programme, he was also a student at the Stellenbosch University’s Small Business Academy,where he received the award of Business with the Most Potential.

As a participant in the Ranyaka Building Business programme, Mhlengi has been assisted with funding for his roasting machine as well as retail space at the CoCreate Hub. He says, “Ranyaka has really supported me and my business and are now providing me with the tools I need to work ‘on the business’ rather than ‘in the business’”. He also appreciates the access to specialists who can guide him in areas such as compliance saying “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

With an eye on future expansion, Mhlengi explains: “You need to create systems that allow others to be independent workers in the business.” In the short term, he hopes to get his product into more delis and retailers while growing his individual customer base. He is also dreaming bigger and would like to open more coffee bars – “maybe collaborating with universities, expos, and markets.”

Fortunately, as his business was primarily online, Mhlengi was able to continue operating when the Covid pandemic hit the world. This does not mean that he didn’t face challenges, especially as his corporate, hospitality, and food service clients (80% of his sales) were unable to operate or were operating under constraints. Being unable to exhibit at expos and trade shows has also impacted his business negatively. Additionally, he has to find a balance between his work and academic demands.

“I needed to work to pay for my studies, but if I worked too much then my studies suffered.”

In a perfect storm of bad luck, Mhlengi also experienced a series of setbacks when he had equipment stolen in the Cape, his delivery bike stolen in Johannesburg, and a number of personal challenges to overcome. Not being insured, Mhlengi learned a hard lesson. He attributes the assistance of Ranyaka in replacing his stolen equipment as important, but even more valuable to him has been “the emotional support. The feeling that they’ve got your back.”

The Coffee MM owner believes that small businesses are important to the South African economy because “sectors such as the informal sector employ more people. They are the biggest employment driver. Small businesses and informal businesses remove the barriers to entry and can have a bigger impact on people”.

In July 2021, Mhlengi Ngcobo was announced as one of the winners in the category ‘Business and Entrepreneurship’ in the 2021 Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans.

On his business journey, Mhlengi has learned a lot. He says, “You can bounce back from adversity, you can rise from your tragedies and recover from them. It is important to surround yourself with the right people. You can start with what you have wherever you are. I know that even if I lose everything, I can start again.”

To the aspiring entrepreneur Mhlengi says: “Start. Why do you want to start your business? You need to understand what you want to achieve. Is it finance or social impact? Look at the prices you need to pay to succeed and decide whether it is worthwhile. You need to understand the investment and align them with your personality and goals.” He goes on to say, “if you are risk averse or not tenacious, you need to objectively assess yourself.”

Words by Lesley Scott

Images by Lizelle Lötter Photography