Haile Gebrselassie is an Ethiopian long-distance running superstar. He speaks to Sport Industry Insider about launching his new Haile Coffee brand in Dubai.
It has been 25 years since George Foreman became perhaps the most famous example of a sporting superstar disrupting the F&B market. His eponymous ‘lean mean, fat reducing grilling machine’ proved a must-have kitchen accessory in the nineties and noughties; for a generation of people, the former world heavyweight boxing champion’s name is more synonymous with food than his fists.
There have been other more recent examples, with American football player Brandon Merriweather launching a successful takeaway food app in the United States called Takeout Waiter, while another football player Brian Orakpo has opened more than 100 outlets of his Gigi’s Cupcakes brand.
Now one of the world’s most celebrated long-distance runners is looking to get in on the act.
Before Mo Farah stole the hearts of athletics fans, there was Haile Gebrselassie. The Ethiopian, famous for his infectious smile, won successive 10,000m gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, as well as setting 27 world records and claiming eight World Championship titles.
Gebrselassie retired as a legend of his sport in 2015 and unsurprisingly has not been short of speaking engagements since, while also serving as president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. However, he is determined to be an example to Ethiopian entrepreneurs, too.
A host of diverse business interests – from spas and restaurants, to agriculture and real estate – pack Gebrselassie’s portfolio. But it is his Haile Coffee venture that currently takes up much of his attention.
Gebrselassie’s native Ethiopia may have proven prolific at producing successful long-distance runners but the East-African nation is even more renowned for producing coffee. The coffee plant’s origins are in Ethiopia and last year, the 221,000 tonnes of coffee exported made the country $866 million.
It is for this reason that Gebrselassie decided to invest in a coffee farm prior to his retirement.
“For me, it is important to be part of the business world in Ethiopia, to help Ethiopia export goods,” Gebrselassie tells Sport Industry Insider. “Everyone knows that Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world and it is an important product in our country.
“It is our main resource and around 25% of people in Ethiopia are involved in coffee production in some way. I wanted to be a part of that too.”
Gebrselassie’s first step was to buy the land and it was then a case of waiting to see if the quality of the yield would meet expectations.
“I started by getting 1500 hectares, and decided I wanted to grow organic coffee. We use nothing artificial which means it takes a little more time. We waited and fortunately, I was lucky. Haile Coffee tastes great and of course that is the most important thing.
“It was a long process – around four years to get to the right level where we ready for the first production. But you cannot complain about the process because quality takes time.
“Production is now getting bigger and bigger every year. From one container we are now at 12-15 containers.”
Gebrselassie’s glittering sporting career was characterised by tremendous dedication and persistence and the 45-year-old believes it is those qualities that will help him succeed in the business world too.
“Just like being the best marathon runner drove me before, now I want to be the best in the coffee business,” Gebrselassie explains. “This desire to become the best, this competitive side is still burning as brightly as ever.
“Both in sport and in coffee production you need to be patient. I can remember this well from my marathon career – you have to be so patient. But honestly, even more patience is required in the coffee business. You have to wait four to five years for the product to be right.”
Now it seems the time is right and Gebrselassie has chosen Dubai as a key market in which to launch his product. Haile Coffee can now be found at Mokha1450 – a boutique coffee shop with branches in Al Safa and on the Palm Jumeirah.
“Both in sport and in coffee you need to be patient. But honestly, even more patience is required in coffee production.”
During his running career, Gebrselassie won the Dubai Marathon three times and is now one of the event’s ambassadors. It was a happy hunting ground in sport and he hopes the same success will come to Haile Coffee.
“Dubai is a special place for me and I am happy to be here again. My first visit was back in 1991, I stopped here for one night when I was flying to Japan. I said to my wife when I think about Dubai 27 years ago and now, it is a miracle. This is a place where you can dream and maybe 27 years from now we will see Haile Coffee everywhere.”
For now, Gebrselassie hopes that some of the 170,000 Ethiopian expats living in the UAE will make a pilgrimage to Mokha 1450 to taste the coffee grown by their country’s biggest sporting icon.
“It is a big community here, I remember that well from the Dubai Marathon – the fans are fantastic,” Gebrselassie says. “I really do hope the Ethiopians in Dubai will come to drink the coffee. Hopefully they will be proud to have this brand in Dubai.”