Stories

A coffee a day keeps the poachers away

Walking with rangers in Kenya inspired Steffen Sauer to set up a business that supports rangers and reforestation to protect African wildlife

Steffen Sauer (PMD ’19) learned a big lesson when he left his comfort zone. “Always go for the choice that scares you most,” he says.

17 December 2019

An eye-opening trip to Kenya in 2018 changed Steffen Sauer’s life. The German executive volunteered to live and work alongside rangers as they patrolled Kenya’s wilderness in search of illegal poaching and logging. Kenya’s elephant population and forests are under threat from black-market trade in bush meat, ivory and timber.

“Witnessing the beauty of wildlife and the rangers fighting for it every day while being exposed to so many threats and challenges really made me think,” he recalls.

Little could he have imagined, as he watched the sunrise over his camp, that in a year’s time he would launch a social enterprise, and the hot drink in his hand would be a Kenyan coffee whose purchase would go toward wildlife conservation in the country he had grown to love.

Getting his hands dirty

“Leave your comfort zone.” That’s one of Sauer’s mottos. And it’s something he has done throughout his career. Working for the German automotive supplier ZF Group, when a role came up as Head of Production for the Asia-Pacific region, he jumped at the chance and moved to China. “If you get a chance to work abroad, do it,” he says. “It will totally change you. You’ll develop a completely new skillset, collect lots of new impressions, and meet people along the way who will leave a mark on you or become your friends.”

After three years in Asia, he returned to Germany and got in touch with Raabia Hawa, a Kenyan conservationist who runs the Ulinzi Africa Foundation, a nonprofit focused on ranger welfare and wildlife protection. Sauer explains, “At that point, I wanted to get more involved than just sitting on my couch watching nature documentaries and donating to organizations at Christmastime.”

He signed up for one of her initiatives, Walk With Rangers, which involved two weeks of doing exactly what the name suggests. “It was a mind-blowing experience,” he says. He would help the rangers find and dismantle animal snares and destroy kilns used to burn trees for charcoal. “We even caught an illegal logger.”

The hot, sweaty, dangerous business of being a ranger impacted him, as the rangers showed him their scars from being attacked by a wild animal or by a local with a machete. And those were the lucky ones who had lived to tell the tale. “It took me some time to digest all of that.” Even more disturbing for him to learn was that few of these rangers had any health, life or disability insurance or received any PTSD counselling triggered by a colleague’s death in the line of duty. They lacked basic supplies like boots, tents and GPS devices, and needed more training.

Brewing up a new business

This started Sauer thinking: “How could I generate a sustainable source of funding for the foundation? What product could I sell that’s linked to Kenya and/or the purpose of wildlife conservation? What’s something that people need, want or do on a daily base that I could link to Kenya and/or the purpose?” His answer: coffee.

Sauer, who had just completed a Program for Management Development (PMD) at IESE, decided to follow two of his other mottos: “Be the change you want to see in the world” and “Follow the gold and money will follow.” Regarding the first point, he took a sabbatical from his job to set up Ulinzi Conservation Coffee. And with regard to the second, he says: “What do you want to do in life? I believe it’s important to work for a purpose, to contribute to something bigger, to chase a dream (the gold). If you start with that, money will follow.”

The idea is to sell fair-trade coffee products — enabling a larger share of the sales price to reach the coffee farmer, contributing to the development and living conditions of the producers’ business, while supporting wildlife and reforestation activities in Kenya through local partners, the Ulinzi Africa Foundation and Seedballs Kenya. “Everyone involved gets a fair share — I believe that’s the only way to do it,” he says.

I wanted to get more involved than just sitting on my couch and donating at Christmastime

Besides Raabia Hawa, Sauer’s own brother, who did an MBA at IESE, also became a partner: “Tobias was already curious about my trips. He liked the idea so much he joined the team.” And he convinced an IESE PMD classmate, Kai Gradert, to join him on a return trip to Kenya this past summer to experience Walk With Rangers for himself.

Though it’s still early days, he’s optimistic about the future: “Things may not work out how we want them to be, but it’s all about how we react, adapt, learn, stand up and do it again, but next time better.”

His final advice for those contemplating their New Year’s resolutions: “It’s so easy to stick with what you know, but if you stay too long where you feel comfortable, you won’t achieve any further development. As soon as you feel too comfortable, you need to change something. Keep moving forward. I learned the biggest lessons when I left my comfort zone. Always go for the choice that scares you most.”

Once again, he’s heeding his own advice: after eight years with ZF Group, and amidst the launch of his new coffee venture, he recently joined Lilium, the German startup building a flying electric taxi. For Sauer, things are literally starting to take off.

A version of this article is published in IESE Business School Insight #154.

10 resolutions for 2020

These mottos from Steffen Sauer (PMD ’19) changed his life. Might they change yours, too?

  1. Be consistent: Stand up for what you believe in, but make sure you practice what you preach: this builds trust.
  1. Be yourself: Be the kind of person you would want to meet in life.
  1. Be inconvenient: Don’t hold back from stating inconvenient truths – but also propose solutions.
  1. Challenge the status quo: Just because you’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Make little improvements every day.
  1. Be the change you want to see in the world: To change others, start by changing yourself. If others see you willing to make the changes that you’re asking them to make, it’s easier for them to follow suit.
  1. Leave your comfort zone: Go for the choice that scares you most, rather than the easy option. That will help spur you forward and develop further. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
  1. Accept failure: We all make mistakes; what matters is how we react. Do you complain and give up? Or do you learn from your mistakes and resolve to do better next time?
  1. Follow the gold and money will follow: Work for a purpose, to contribute to something bigger: that’s the real gold; money comes after.
  1. Do it with passion or not at all: You only live once, so do it now or never.
  1. Work abroad: If you get the chance, do it. You’ll develop a completely new skillset, collect lots of new impressions, and meet people along the way who will leave a mark on you or become lifelong friends.