Mike Mwenedata, co-founder of Rwanda Bean Coffee, arrived in Maine in 2010. Originally from Rwanda, he came with little other than the gifts he was born with, a college education, a passion for helping others, and a driving entrepreneurial spirit. At the time he was a very young man, just out of college, with limited English skills, and unsure of how to navigate life in the United States. However, over the course of the intervening eight years, he never passed up an opportunity that came his way, and is now at the shared helm of an ambitious business, Rwanda Bean Coffee, with his partner, Nick Mazuroski
Rwanda Bean sources high-quality Grade A Bourbon Arabica coffee beans from a farmer’s co-operative of over three hundred famers and 400,000 coffee trees high in the mountains of Rwanda. There the soil is rich in volcanic material, and this soil composition, together with climate, elevation, and a deep knowledge on the part of the farmers about best practices, creates a superior coffee bean. Rwanda Bean buys directly from the farming cooperative; there is no middleman. The business offers wholesale beans that are distributed throughout New England, on-line purchasing (free shipping), and two coffee bar locations. The beans can be purchased at a growing list of Maine stores, including Aurora Provisions, A & C Grocery and Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Portland; Scratch Baking Co. and The Farm Stand in South Portland; The Cheese Iron and Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Scarborough. The décor of the coffee bars is elegant, with comfortable seating and treats to enjoy along with coffee beverages. Cold-brew coffee is a specialty.
Rwanda Bean Coffee is not your average profit-oriented business. Mr. Mwenedata and Mr. Mazuroski have from the early planning stages of the venture had a mission – to give 50% of any profits they earn back to farmers in Rwanda through a program they call 50% for Farmers. Mr. Mwenedata says, “I call the farmers shareholders. They work very hard. I know what they are going through.” The plan is to invest in infrastructure, education, and health care for the farmers in Rwanda by donating half of the profit they earn from each cup of coffee they sell. This spring Rwanda Bean made a start – they paid for the health insurance of eight hundred of the farmers in the cooperative. The hope is that Rwanda Bean will grow enough to make a big difference in the lives of farmers and their families and communities in Rwanda.
“I like helping people,” says Mr. Mwenedata. “It gives me joy and happiness.” Like all Rwandans of his generation, Mike Mwenedata’s childhood was marred by tragic events. “Growing up, after losing my family, many people helped me,” he says. “During my early years, before the genocide, I saw my mother helping people. She literally would give the shirt off my back if someone else needed it more.” At first he considered starting a non-profit to help others, but he was worried that with his limited English he would not succeed.
Mike Mwenedata reflected on his early years in the U.S. and on the origins of Rwanda Bean. “When you first come to this country you can be terrified by how fast everything moves!” He remembers going into coffee shops in Maine when he first arrived and being amazed both by the quantity of coffee Americans drink and by the price they pay for the coffee. “I realized that back home a whole family could live for one day on the price people pay for one cup of coffee in the U.S.” He also remembers thinking about the high quality of coffee beans back home, the lack of a coffee harvest in the mainland US, and the strong tradition of coffee growing in Rwanda. Through the years, “I tried everything I could find. Every time I heard of an opportunity I went for it.” He and Mr. Mazuroski participated – and won – Maine Start-Up Week in 2014, participated in Green Light, and in Top Gun, both in 2016. These are all programs designed to help entrepreneurs get their dream off the ground. All of these opportunities helped him to hone his plan. “You have to explore,” he advises. “If you have an idea, share it. If someone asks a question, it might help you reflect.” He recommends attending every workshop you can, meeting people, creating a network, trying to be open and connected to people both within and outside of your community. “If you only stay in your own bubble it will be hard to adjust to the new life in this country.”
Rwanda Bean has twelve employees, and serves as a prime example of immigrant-owned businesses that help Maine’s economy. The locations for Rwanda Bean’s coffee bars are: Rwanda Bean Flagship Coffee Bar at 185 Cottage Road in South Portland; Rwanda Bean@Black Cat at 463 Stevens Avenue in Portland; The Point in South Portland.