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A dream born from a disaster: Jahan Tavangar creating meaningful enterprises

Sometimes dreams come true and we wanted to share how a person made one dream happen: Jahan Tavangar and “coffee for water”, who will be enriching the ebbf “make it meaningful” annual conference with a track assisting participants wanting to put their passion, talent and values into creating successful social enterprises.

Go back to January 12, 2010, headline news is the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti’s capital, Port-Au-Prince, killing 250,000 people and destroying much of the city. One and a half million people became homeless.

That moment Jahan decided to join a group of doctors and volunteers who wanted to go to Haiti and offer their much-needed services in the midst of that devastation. So Jahan and 33 other volunteers flew to the Dominican Republic (the airport in Haiti had been damaged during the earthquake, and there were no commercial flights into the country). They loaded the 60 boxes of medical supplies that they had brought with them onto a truck and drove eight hours to Haiti, seeing much chaos and devastation along the way.

Knowing that one of the most critical needs in Haiti would be access to safe drinking water, Jahan brought with him a water purification system, which he installed at Anis Zunuzi Baha’i School, where the volunteers stayed and used as their base camp. He saw the immediate positive impact that the water purification system made on the 350 students at this school. At that point, Jahan realized why he had pursued a Ph.D. and a career in environmental engineering. His childhood dream of helping refugees was finally coming true.

“Service to humanity sounds like a big statement, but I’ve always tried to take it to the practical level and ask myself, how can I be useful, how can I assist those that need help?” said Jahan as we enjoyed sharing a few tapas in a typical Madrid restaurant.

Seeing the immediate impact of that first water purification system, Jahan started to think how he could quickly scale up, in a sustainable way, the delivery of more water projects in Haiti, where one in three person lacks access to safe drinking water. It was during one of the short breaks in the grueling pace of the days that followed the earthquake in Haiti that he was offered a cup of coffee.

“I am not sure if it was how much I needed that coffee or the beautiful atmosphere of gratitude that surrounded us, but that coffee tasted so good!” recalls Jahan. He asked the woman who made the coffee how she managed to get a hold of such excellent coffee, she smiled and said that the coffee was locally grown in Haiti. Immediately Jahan’s entrepreneurial mind saw the opportunity: to leverage what they have (coffee) for what they need (water). This would be done by importing Haitian coffee into the U.S., selling it, and using the profits to fund water purifications projects in Haiti.

Thus the social enterprise, “Coffee for Water”, was born. He found a coffee growers coop in Haiti and purchased green unroasted coffee beans from them, paying the farmers more than Fair Trade prices. He then made arrangements with several coffee roasters in the U.S. to roast and package the coffee, which is now being sold on Coffee for Water’s website (

This is a social enterprise, not a non-profit NGO that looks for charitable donations. We sell a real product that people want to buy, and use the profits to fund life-saving water purification projects.” says Jahan. To date, Coffee for Water has funded five water projects in Haiti, impacting 1,000 children in two schools and an orphanage. Coffee for Water is currently negotiating with a major U.S. university to sell its Haitian coffee on campus. “The growth of this social enterprise was quite something” said Jahan, “and it has been so easy to find extremely talented young professionals who were eager to contribute to something that is very meaningful.”

So much so that he quickly added new elements to the Coffee for Water enterprise, starting from a way that students buying coffee at a university campus in the U.S. could register themselves online and track their personal contribution to water projects. Now this has been taken to the next level and a mobile phone app allows you to scan the QR code of each cup you purchase and view on your phone the status of your “Water Credits” and how much CO2 emission you have saved by purchasing a cup of Coffee for Water.

You may ask now what is the connection between the Coffee for Water purifying systems and carbon emissions. “Well as we all know water is fundamental in our lives, to obtain drinking water where none exists you need to boil it, and in developing countries” says Jahan “they use charcoal to boil and disinfect the water. So it is usually women and girls who spend great parts of their days (often missing on educational opportunities) carrying the water home and boiling it using charcoal that has been made by cutting down and burning. That process has a huge impact to the environment, but also to the health of the people sitting around those fires inhaling the fumes. By introducing water purification systems Jahan sees an opportunity to reduce that combination of negative effects.

Students and their teacher drinking purified water at New Horizon school in Haiti

The “Coffee for Water” brand is now being considered by several major companies for their social engagement and sustainability programs. It will become a kind of “certification” for a variety of products, indicating that a portion of their proceeds will fund clean water projects in developing countries.

So in just a short time Jahan could see his dream, his values and his sincere desire to serve humanity not only come to fruition but also go beyond his wildest imagination.

“I think that we should take more time to focus on service by trying to discover what unique talents we have been given, and use them as tools, as God-given tools to serve others: it is through action that we gain insight into this process, we then need to reflect on the results of our actions and consult with others. In today’s world staying flexible and open to learning are important, so the virtuous circle of action, reflection and consultation is valid in business just as it is in our personal lives.”

Still a few places available so book now your spot at the ebbf international learning event where you will be able to interact with Jahan and another 20 speakers and sessions that aim to show successful paths towards a new paradigm of work.

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