As a resident of Cameroon, in West Africa, Vanessa Zommi Kungne already was a rarity among Villanova University’s student body when she arrived last spring.
The resume she brought distinguished her even more:
Founder of a tea company at age 17.
Selected as one of Forbes Africa’s 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs and featured in a CNN story on Africa’s economic-
One of 12 finalists for Africa’s premier award for young entrepreneurs, the Anzisha Prize.
Winner of a start-up pitch contest in Cameroon, netting $2,000 in prize money and another $2,000 from an impressed import/export company.
“To be the Lipton of Africa,” Kungne said of her aspirations for Afya Tea. “Right now, I’m dealing with chemical engineering.”
If all goes according to plan, the 21-year-old will graduate from Villanova next year with a master’s degree in chemical engineering and be accepted into an MBA program that would start in 2019.
In between, her plan is to return to Cameroon and apply what she’s learned at Villanova to boost production and begin exporting tea to other African countries and, ultimately, the United States.
Key is a crowd-funding campaign launching later this month on Indiegogo to raise $150,000 for equipment to automate what is now manual production. With grinders, electric dryers, and packaging machines in place, revenues could quickly reach $600,000 a year, Kungne said.
Sales have reached $5,200 since starting late last year at www.afyatea.com and in a half-dozen Cameroon retailers.
Afya means health in Swahili. Wanting to improve the health of Cameroonians is what inspired Kungne to take this entrepreneurial journey.
In 2007, her grandfather died of diabetes at age 76. Six years later, her mother, Ndifor Emmilien, a single parent to four children, was diagnosed with diabetes, too, at age 50.
“I really love my mom,” Kungne said during an interview at Villanova’s Center for Engineering Education and Research. “After God, for me it’s my mom. I didn’t want my mom to pass away like my grandfather.”
So Kungne began to research the disease, coming across an estimate by the World Health Organization in 2014 of 190 million diabetes sufferers across the globe, projected to double by 2025. “I told myself I’m going to be a solution to this problem,” she said.
Through more research, she read about possible links between the leaves of the moringa oleifera tree and regulating blood sugar. As an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at the Catholic University Institute of Buea in Cameroon, Kungne talked to moringa farmers about her desire to make tea from a plant they used primarily for cross-pollination.
She encountered skeptics, winning them over with repeat visits to their homes and the thing that really convinced them she was serious: money. Once she handed farmers $400 of $500 she had saved since high school so they could buy moringa seeds, “they took me seriously.”
Then she assembled a team of five friends “I really trust” to produce the tea, guided by YouTube videos. Afya is believed to be the only African-branded tea.
An opportunity sponsored by the U.S. State Department brought her and 39 other Africans from 10 countries to the University of Connecticut in the summer of 2014 for a five-week, all-expenses-paid course on entrepreneurship.
The contests in Africa followed, and prize money that helped her start the business. Her mother, who buys and sells electronics, has been a big help, too, contributing about $7,000, Kungne said.
In Kungne’s absence, her mother manages 10-employee Afya Tea.
She drinks the tea, too. “Yes, of course,” Kungne said. “If she does not, who will?”
Her adviser at Villanova, chemical engineering professor Vito Punzi, has been another gift, she said.
“A spirit that she has that is different than some of our other graduate students” has reinforced his decision “to take a chance” and bring Kungne to Villanova on academic scholarship, Punzi said.
Directed by a reporter to Afya Tea’s website, Dino Ramos, chief operating officer at the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia, a bistate nonprofit providing exporting support to local companies, said Kungne “appears to be off to a good start.”
With much work ahead. Ramos outlined a dizzying to-do list that includes: find an international bank, law firm, and accounting firm; make her website multilingual; and get paid in advance until customers’ creditworthiness is established.
“I think the tea business is quite competitive, so I think [Kungne’s success] will be a question of her indicating her competitive advantages over other types of tea,” he said.
Expected soon are results from clinical trials in Cameroon on whether Afya Tea has had any impact on the blood sugar of 220 rats.