Young entrepreneurs take a step towards making coffee shoes in Vietnam

By Long Nguyen   October 16, 2019 | 12:07 am PT
Young entrepreneurs take a step towards making coffee shoes in Vietnam
Jesse Khanh Tran (L) and his co-founder Son Chu. Photo courtesy of Jesse Khanh Tran.
Rens, a startup by a Vietnamese duo in Finland making the world’s first shoes from coffee grounds, wants to shift to Vietnam soon.

Tran had just ordered a cup of ca phe sua da, or iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, a drink that has become world famous over the last few decades.

"I can’t get enough of Vietnamese coffee," said Jesse Khanh Tran as he waited for his order at a coffeeshop in downtown Saigon.

Tran is in the coffee business, too, along with his friend and partner, Son Chu, who he met in Finland while they were there for higher studies. 

But the Vietnamese duo is not selling coffee as a beverage. They are using residual coffee grounds as raw material for shoes, the first time ever that it has been done.

Today, the duo are hoping to shift production of their unique coffee shoes, marketed under the Rens brand, to Vietnam.

Rens shoes are waterproof and odor-free. Each pair is made from 300 grams of used coffee grounds (equivalent to the remains of 21 cups of coffee) and six recycled plastic bottles, Tran said.

Two years ago, Tran met his former colleague Chu at a coffee shop in Helsinki, Finland, and decided to do something about their common passion for shoes. The brought together their experience with a startup called FactoryFinder that connected businesses with factories that could make products to specifications with minimal procedures and hassles.

"We wanted to make shoes which were not only beautiful but also eco-friendly. Most of the environment-friendly shoes in the market were not well designed."

"But our first prototype was disgusting," Tran recalled.

The duo then did more research and found out that many companies had used coffee grounds to make garments, but no one had ever made shoes with them. If they could do it, they would be making use of a resource that would otherwise go to waste, and providing an alternative to the conventional chemicals used in the fabric industry.

Tran said: "Used coffee grounds are cleaned to extract the oil and then ground before being mixed with polyester from used plastic bottles to make coffee yarn." From this process, the coffee oil can be sold to cosmetics and other companies. The yarn is used to make fabric that has excellent natural anti-odor qualities, offers UV ray protection and dries quick.

At the moment, Rens's partners collect coffee grounds from convenience stores and coffee shops across Taiwan to make sure they have enough input material.

But the 27-year-old Tran said did not think eco-friendliness was a selling point for his products because "we all have to protect the environment and all products in the market will be eco-friendly and sustainable by default."

This summer, Tran and his team successfully raised $550,300 on Kickstarter and $572,300 from crowdfunding website Indiegogo. The company now has nine investors and thousands of backers in 69 countries.

The first Rens shoes will be delivered to customers this November, and Tran said there was a lot of pressure on him with the deadline so close.

The final prototype of Rens shoes. Photo courtesy of Jesse Khanh Tran.

The final prototype of Rens shoes. Photo courtesy of Jesse Khanh Tran.

Staying with his family in downtown HCMC for a few days last September, Tran met with potential local partners to have the shoes manufactured and distributed in his home country.

Knowing that Vietnam exports over one billion pairs of shoes annually and is the world’s second largest exporter, Tran hopes to move his manufacturing to Vietnam/

The silver lining

Rens means "clean and pure" in Scandinavian languages, and "the great feeling you have when you do something good to others" in old Chinese, Tran said, explaining the brand name.

"That is our motto. Rens gives me and my colleagues a great feeling because are doing something positive for the people and for the earth."

When Tran first shared his idea with others, many thought it was unrealistic, since Finland was not a place for manufacturing or consumer goods industries.

However, once they had their final prototype, an intricately designed pair of shoes with a hash sign knitted on the upper, the venture attracted more support.

After starting with their first employee in February 2019, the duo now manage a team of nine people from six countries in Helsinki. They have been doing extensive research to find greener materials for the Rens shoes, with the aim of extending the lifecycles of many trashed items, not only coffee.

"Since we have a good reputation among the startup communities of Northern Europe, we are lucky to have so many applicants for every job position we advertise now. They are all excited and passionate about Rens."

Tran said he planned to enjoy the Saigon rain, ride his mother’s motorbike and eat Vietnamese food before leaving for the U.S., where 30 percent of his customers are.

Talking about regrets over the last two years, Jesse said he and his ex-fiancé were together for six years when he started focusing on Rens.

"Managing a startup was so overwhelming that I did not have time for her."

Now, Tran said, his only love now is his company.

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