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Known for his broad smile and lilting Caribbean accent, Rodney has ingratiated himself across the university campus. It’s no wonder that business partners suggested he name his young company “Mr. Nice Guy Coffee.” But the history behind that smile and his accomplishments amassed in just 25 years would impress the most diligent and ambitious among us.
“I’ve traveled a long way. That’s all I can say,” Rodney admits. “I was a poor, Jamaican guy, traveling a long way to school. But I was always a businessman. I would sell rides on my bike. I would sell my lunch. I was always interested in business from the get go.”
Rodney grew up on his family’s farm, a total of about 80 cultivated and 40 uncultivated acres, considered large by island standards. Its various parcels rise from about 3,700 feet to more than 5,000 feet in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, considered among the world’s finest coffee-growing regions.
“My childhood experience was different,” he recalls. “I had animals. We had to fetch water. We didn't have a gas stove. We had to use wood. So I had to fetch wood. All said, I had to walk more than five miles round trip to high school.”
At that school, Rodney’s enthusiasm for biology, mathematics and English found support from a teacher who overturned another’s recommendation against his taking the crucial Caribbean Examinations Council tests that were his route to college. He passed those tests and was admitted to Excelsior Community College in Kingston, Jamaica, where he would eventually earn an associate degree in Management Information Systems.
“The funny thing is that I wasn't introduced to computers until I was 16,” recalls a man whom others now depend on to solve technical problems. “I had a project that required a computer's assistance. I went to the school library and couldn't turn it on. Internet Explorer and Microsoft word seemed pretty basic, but I couldn't wrap my mind around that. I've traveled a long way.”
His guidance counselor at Excelsior, to whom Rodney brought a basket of farm produce every week, apparently recognized his unique blend of ambition and grace. She knew he could succeed in the competitive world of Jamaican’s northern, mainland neighbor. She pressed him repeatedly to contact Harmel’s Guest Ranch, which is in Taylor Canyon, a dozen or so miles north of Western and Gunnison. Finally, after demurring for four months, saying he had to help his family on the farm, he placed a call to Amie Anderson at the ranch.
“She knew me when I called,” Rodney says. “Almost immediately, she said, ‘You’ve got the job. When can you make it out here?’”
For four summers, Rodney traveled to the Gunnison Valley, returning to Excelsior each fall to continue his studies. He began working as a housekeeper, was asked to cover a shift in the dining room and impressed the owner with his waiting skills immediately. The following summer, he was named head housekeeper. In subsequent years, he became host of the dining room. He talks of helping the chefs prepare special meals, and those who know him at Western share tales of fabulous Jamaican meals he has shared with them.
He learned of Western during his trips to purchase local groceries and from a trip with ranch staff to see “Despicable Me” at the Ruby Cinemas in Western’s University Center. After he graduated from Excelsior, Rodney applied to Western, obtained a student visa, was able to transfer many of his credits from the Jamaican school and enrolled as a student in January 2012.
He says the roots of Mr. Nice Guy Coffee and its corporate parent, Roastafari Holdings Ltd., grew from his first experiences in the U.S. in 2009. Rodney quickly realized what Americans paid for their eye-opening sips was far more than his family and other Jamaican farmers earned.
An entrepreneur was born.
Now several Colorado cafes and bistros serve MNG coffee. It’s available online from mngcoffee.com, where you’ll find background on the company, its coffees and the people who grow them. The company hopes by late summer to open a coffee shop near the gondola in Breckenridge. And every bag of roasted beans includes a QR code that leads to an online video about a farmer that supplies the green beans MNG has custom roasted at a mile-high facility in Denver. Part of the company pitch is that higher-altitude roasting produces higher-quality coffees.
Besides premium Jamaican Blue Mountain beans – so named because when they are “green,” they are actually rather blue – MNG also sells KB CO-branded beans from farmers in the mountains of Kenya. This allows Rodney and his company to offer a more affordable, more obtainable – yet still highly prized – coffee for the market, while also helping struggling farmers on another continent. Rodney learned of these beans and those who grow them from the roaster in Denver.
Five percent of MNG sales go into a scholarship fund for the farmers’ children and a retirement fund for the farmers. MNG also partners with Denver-based Optimus Youth to help the wider communities where its coffees grow. While still a new effort, they have helped build an orphanage and school in Kenya, an orphanage in Mozambique and a breakfast program for children who attend school in Richmond Gap, Jamaica.
MNG’s website states, “By allowing the coffee farmers a tangible stake in our success, there is no doubt that the quality of our coffee, as well as the lives of those who grow it, will continue to thrive. It's only good business if we all succeed. Our customers receive a rare and exotic coffee, and our farmers are properly rewarded for their hard work. Drink a cup, smile mon!”
Now that he’s graduating, Rodney says he loves it here and wants to stay in the U.S. to continue his venture, – and adventures – seeking to move on from his student visa to a “Green Card” work visa, or possibly continue with additional studies. His grandmother, mother and father all run portions of the family farming operation. He has two younger brothers still in Jamaica, and a half brother in Canada. They stay in touch, both as family and business partners.
Asked how he feels about all this, Rodney leans back in his chair, his trademark smile filling his face, and says it again: “I’ve traveled a long way.”
Story and photograph by Greg Smith, Western Marketing & Media Relations.