Magazine article International Trade Forum

Bringing Inspiration to Full Flower

Magazine article International Trade Forum

Bringing Inspiration to Full Flower

Article excerpt

I n 1999, Charlotte Robert took some time off from her job at the Swiss Ministry of Economy to learn Spanish in Costa Rica. During her walk to and from school each day, she was struck by the fragrance of the blossoms from a certain plant in many people's front gardens, and soon learned they were coffee trees.

'My first reaction was to look for a perfume using that essence,' Robert says. 'I asked a friend who was a professional 'nose' in New York whether such a scent existed. Her response, after looking into it, was that it did not.' And so the seed of a business was formed.

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The scent of opportunity

Not everyone has what it takes to bring an idea to life--the drive, the vision, the experience of getting things done. Not everyone has the courage to try Even then, the barriers to entry may prove too high.

Robert, a Swiss national, waited for her retirement before turning her energies to creating a perfume from coffee blossoms. Having determined that Costa Rica--with its relatively well-educated population, proximity of coffee fields to laboratories and throngs of tourists--was the best Central American country from which to base her efforts, she threw herself into product development.

At the time, she knew next to nothing about creating a perfume, or selling it. She also had no wealth of her own to invest in her venture. That said, she had many personal advantages. She had spent most of her professional life in economic development, mostly in a project management role, and was undaunted by doing business in a foreign country. She was familiar with the kinds of difficulties businesses can face in developing and transition-economy countries, She also spoke French, English, German and Spanish, a huge advantage in international marketing and trade.

'I have run development projects in quite a few African countries--Burundi, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal--so after I retired, I wanted to take on a project of my own. I wanted to do it my way,' she says.

Step one was to find a willing coffee grower, and the first question he asked was whether hat vesting the blossoms would affect the development of the fruit. No one seemed to know. Even agro engineers contacted by Robert couldn't provide a definitive answer, but the cafetalero was willing to try, and when the first petals were carefully picked from his coffee trees, the tiny beginnings of fruit were already there.

In 2004, Robert again called on her New York friend, asking her to work alongside a chemical engineer at the University of Costa Rica to determine how best to extract the fragrance from coffee flowers, and subsequently develop a base for the perfume. The following year, they engaged Costa Rican laboratory Aqylasa to combine the components into a perfume. The result far exceeded anyone's expectations.

With a high quality product showing real market potential, Robert founded Fleur de Cafe, and spent the next year focusing on branding, packaging and distribution. Today, Fleur de Cafe offers an eau de toilette, body lotion, body mist and eau de parfum.

The trials of entrepreneurship

Robert is the first to admit it has not been an easy journey. Every step of the way, she has had to woo investors and identify experts, educate hen self in the world of cosmetics and perfume, and navigate endless legal and regulatory obstacles in her quest for customers and market access.

Fleur de Cafe achieved early success in selling to coffee roasters and vendors, due to the coffee connection, but as a minor sideline and, admittedly, a gimmick for these customers, this segment offers limited growth potential. …

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