For us, coffee is how we kickstart each day. For Marian Aguilar, coffee is her way of life – she runs a thriving coffee roasting and consultancy business in Singapore. In the second run of our Unusual Jobs series, we catch up with Marian about life in Singapore, her business, and staying connected to her Venezuelan roots.
18 January 2021 / By SGN
Marian Aguilar grew up in the lush, verdant city of Valera, Venezuela. Surrounded by tall mountainous peaks and bountiful farms, Valera rests in between the rivers Momboy and Motatán and is a picturesque city known for growing vegetables and fruits and producing meat and cheese for the rest of the country. Her parents owned a coffee plantation there, which is how Marian grew up with a deep understanding of coffee-bean production. At the age of 20, encouraged by her Dad, Marian started her first coffee business — a coffee kiosk within a busy hospital in Valencia, a city in central Venezuela where she was attending university. These experiences marked the beginnings of what was later to become a career in the coffee industry.
Marian left Venezuela in 2009 amid increasing political instability and traversed across the oceans to work in a coffee retail business and train at the London School of Coffee. In 2013, she moved to Thailand to run her family’s first coffee roastery project in Asia, where she met her future husband, Han, in a Thai language school. “It seems that life put both of us there to meet each other!” she exclaims.
Marian decided to relocate to Singapore in 2015. “Han and I were getting married and Singapore was a natural choice. We also saw immense potential in the coffee trade given the emergence of specialty coffee culture in this part of the world.”
She now calls Singapore home and owns a coffee roastery, Cata Coffee, which she founded in 2016, offering fresh roasted coffee to meet the growing demand for high quality beans. She also runs the coffee lab for Mercanta – Singapore, a global coffee distributor, which is headquartered in the UK.
Despite growing up in bucolic Venezuela, Marian never felt out of place in urban Singapore. For one, there’s the geographical location — both countries are around the Equator and have a tropical climate, where days are bright and sunny, she says.
Both Singapore and Venezuela are also multiracial and multicultural. Marian shares: “Like Singapore, my country had an open policy towards immigrants and received many Europeans after the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. All of them brought to Venezuela a rich culture.”
Having settled comfortably into Singapore, Marian has no qualms sharing with her friends that Singapore is a country filled with opportunities, lovely weather, depth of culture and amazingly talented people.
“I think there is an openness to the wider world that’s embraced in Singapore. Take the time to understand its history and people, and look for authentic connections that fall outside the narratives that typically characterise this modern city,” she advises.
“I also appreciate the level of stability and security which Singapore offers to investors and citizens. This is something that has impressed me greatly.”
Getting a Caffeine Buzz Through Business
When Marian arrived in Singapore, she was concerned about being able to stay true to her trade and find a coffee-related job. But she stayed positive, channelled her energy towards finding her footing in the industry and got the chance to work with Mercanta. She identified opportunities in the market especially in the training and consultancy area and this was how Cata Coffee got its start.
She still works part-time at Mercanta and divides her time between there and Cata Coffee.
Entrepreneurship is the life for her — she loves to have ideas and bring them to fruition and also enjoys taking risks and challenging herself.
“Starting Cata Coffee from nothing has been incredibly rewarding,” Marian says. To her, an important part of being a business-owner is that she can emulate her parents, their siblings and her grandparents, who are her greatest role models in entrepreneurship. “There is a special force that moves me and connects me with my childhood. Both of my families were producers which made me know the challenges, as well as the victories they had. I really respect farmers,” Marian explains.
She also gets lots of inspiration from other entrepreneurs, especially the founder of BUF Coffee in Rwanda, Epiphanie Mukashyaka, who is a great example of determination, hard work and resilience. Epiphanie’s husband and son were killed in Africa’s worst genocide in 1994, but Epiphanie picked up the pieces and carried on with her husband’s coffee farm despite limited resources. She slowly grew the business and now buys beans from small coffee farmers in the community, which helps them improve their living conditions.
For those aspiring to enter the coffee business, Marian has these tips to share: Learn as much about coffee as you can – read coffee publications and brew coffee from different roasters, learn to roast and hone your palate so you can assess your own coffee.
“Buy different seasonal fruits from local markets and experience the various flavours and mouthfeel sensations to develop your palate,” she suggests.
But most importantly, she has this to offer: “Try, allow yourself to make mistakes and reframe the fear as fuel to keep going.”
A Day in Marian’s Life
Morning Ritual: Rise and Shine
Marian works at the Mercanta office in Duxton Hill three days a week. On those days, she rises early, at 6am, and then takes in the fresh air with a 45-minute walk around the canal near her home in Telok Kurau. Then she commutes to work, an enjoyable time for her as it means she can engage in reading. “Love it!” she says.
The Rest of the Workday: Buzzing Busy Days
The three days that she’s at Mercanta are packed with green coffee sample assessment, roasting and organising cupping sessions for roasters and buyers.
She dedicates the rest of the week to Cata Coffee with her team to roast coffee twice a week for her wholesale and retail customers, coordinate coffee workshops and collaborations, visit wholesale clients, oversee consultancy projects, and evaluate samples for new crops of coffee to purchase for the next season.
Days at Cata are longer and more dynamic. On a Cata day, she could be doing anything from roasting coffee at 6am to engaging in a cupping session at 10.30am to selecting the next season of crops. In the afternoon, she could be visiting wholesale clients, or planning for the next month’s activities and events.
Evening: Rest and Relax
Marian’s day ends at 8.30pm to 9pm, and she winds down with dinner and a walk with her dog, Maya. She also luxuriates in a warm shower, and then reads some Latin American literature. Sometimes, she treats herself to a night out and goes to The Projector cinema with friends. She enjoys international film festivals.
Weekend Edition: Chill Fest
Marian gets active on the weekends with Zumba and walks at East Coast Park or MacRitchie Reservoir. She and her husband cook and visit bookstores and the library, and both of them are also cultivating a mini garden of herbs and veggies on their balcony. To unwind, she watches stand-up comedy and listens to Spanish rock.
“Netflix released a documentary about the beginnings of Spanish rock in Latin America, and we found a Spotify playlist that features great songs from the show. The name is Break It All – Rock Latinoamericano – Netflix,” Marian recommends.
Linking Up Singapore and Venezuela Through Coffee
While Marian loves her life in Singapore, her heart also lies with Venezuela, which she shares is mired in a complex economic, social, and political situation.
She tries to reach out to her people by joining Venezuelans worldwide who want to alleviate the situation in their country. Together, they coordinate shipments of medical and essential supplies to those in need in Venezuela. Some of the organisations she is supporting include Meals4Hope, Fundación Dar Más Que Recibir, A.C Yo Tengo Un Sueno, Alimenta la Solidaridad, and Proyecto Nodriza 🇻🇪.
“Our hope is to contribute to a sustainable solution to the crisis in Venezuela,” says Marian.
Recently, she was invited by the Venezuelan Embassy in Singapore to talk to coffee farmers and roasters in Venezuela to better understand their situation, as well as the variety of coffee they have. “I was inspired by their dedication and commitment to produce good quality coffee for the national market,” she shares.
Her dream is to introduce Venezuelan coffee into this region of the world to connect with her roots and also help farmers in her home country.
“It will be a real pleasure to contribute to the sourcing of good quality coffee and make it available to roasters around the world,” she says.
Marian grew up in a family of coffee planters. She dipped her toe in the business in university, when her dad encouraged her and her siblings to start a kiosk selling brews made from beans grown in the family farm. She went on to work at Monmouth Coffee and study in the London School of Coffee. In 2013, she moved to Thailand to run her family’s first coffee roastery project in Asia, and met her Singaporean husband, Han.
In addition to her professional coffee training, Marian also possesses a degree in Business Management and a MSc in Occupational Psychology.
Her favourite way to drink coffee is to have a black pour-over early in the morning.