Dagmawi Iyasu, Founder & CEO of Eshi Safaris

Jan 24, 2024
Dagmawi Iyasu, Founder & CEO of Eshi Safaris

Please tell us your name, where your business is located and what is it that you do?

I am Dagmawi Iyasu Eminetu. Thanks to my wife, Sara, friends and colleagues call me “Dagi”. I own a coffee focused business, Eshi Safaris LLC, in the United States. I serve as a Director of Programs for a United States based NGO, Grounds for Health, that runs cervical cancer prevention programs in coffee growing communities with programs in Ethiopia and Kenya. I co-founded a few businesses in coffee that my wife, Sara, owns and operates in Ethiopia called YA Mart, YA Coffee Roasters, Cheris Addis Coffee and Books PLC, and New Phase Trading and Coffee Services PLC.

Tell us about how you got started.

Failure and risk mitigation strategies got me started. I returned back to Ethiopia for the United States after studying and working for 12 years in 2004. I came back to teach at a university but it was hard to adapt to the teaching-learning culture in Ethiopia. Thus, I joined an NGO but wasn’t much different. Personally, I am a data and systems person, which is not necessarily descriptors that apply to the public sectors. At this time, I had started doing consultancy work on the side and became a full-time business after my contract was terminated over a disagreement over principles. I went into retail, a convenient store, with my wife after failing to build the organizational system that can do the consultancy work without my presence. The retail shop failed within three years due to bureaucracy, inflationary pressure, principles, mismanagement, and cash flow. In 2012, we started transitioning into coffee, and we have come along in slow and steady fashion. In 2016, I joined Grounds for Health, and in 2020, I started Eshi Safaris LLC.

What makes your company unique?

In the Ethiopian and African context, we are small but highly invested in the knowledge side of the coffee industry, both my wife and I. We also invest a great deal in capacity of our teams. We also don’t really hire family members to cultivate a meritocracy and professional culture. Globally, we tell authentic stories and is dedicated to bringing African coffee cultures to a global audience. In addition, we are all about enabling others to enter the sector; we don’t really see competitors but rather collaborators. 

No business is without setbacks, can you tell us about a time when you faced a significant setback and how you recovered from it?

On paper, Ethiopia looks good, especially if you want to do manufacturing. That’s why we decided on coffee roasting as a business. However, the sector is plagued by bureaucracy and corruption that favors big local businesses since foreign companies are not allowed to operate coffee businesses in Ethiopia. As a result, it became impossible to access export standard coffee for roast and export operations and needed to wait for five years until 2018 for the regulatory framework to change. During this period, we sold our apartment and car to avoid insolvency and pay back some personal loans. Both Sara and I also went back to school to learn coffee and acquire specialized skills to excel globally. I went back to work in 2016 to improve our cash flow position. We simply persisted since the business model made sense and was being challenged by our past mistakes and/or circumstances.

How do you define success and to what do you attribute your success?

I personally define success in terms of a system. I like building systems that serves as a platform for the success of others. It can be in the form of adapting a model or utilizing our infrastructure to launch a business. Regardless, enabling others and helping support the development of such an ecosystem is what I consider a success. I attribute my success to many mentors, including my mother and wife.

What's next for your business, what will it look like in 5 years?

I expect to launch an e-commerce platform in April 2024 to access Australian, Canada, EU, US, and UK markets to enable our businesses and other artisan producers to retail their products to global consumers. In doing so, we hope to reach over 10,000 such businesses across Africa and other emerging markets within 5 years.

What do you think the future holds for Africa-focused entrepreneurs and advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Africa is an exciting place. Opportunities are so prevalent that it’s hard to focus. Thus, persist, prioritize technical supports over financial ones, focus on solving a pressing problem, be open to learning, and align your knowledge with vocational skills.

Owning a business while balancing a personal life can be challenging; how do you take care of yourself?

I retreat; its hard to work with your wife. Listen, question, and reflect … Its my routine. I retreat at home … it drives my wife crazy!

What is your favorite quote or mantra?  What keeps you going?

Slow and steady wins the race, family keeps me going. I find my children super entertaining … they are teenagers now. 

What is your favorite app or a business tool that you can't live without

Right now, LinkedIn … but I am not really a technology person. Still, I would like to keep doing my podcast.