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A Cup of Coffee That Gives Back

How Portland, Maine-based entrepreneur supports farmers in his home country of Rwanda through his business.

By Connie Aitcheson

When Mike Mwenedata migrated from Rwanda to the United States in his 20s to look for a better life, he saw that many Americans couldn’t function without a cup of coffee. Yet, in Rwanda, though coffee and tea are two of the main agriculture crops exported, he had never tasted coffee. Having an understanding of both cultures, he decided to connect the countries through coffee.

“If America is the country that is providing me with the opportunity, the new life, how can I use that opportunity to be able to help those that I left back in my community, back home? They have something that we desperately need in America,” he says. “So I wanted to start something that can be that bridge, connect both communities but at the same time provide. When you buy a cup of coffee it gives an opportunity to support the farmer.”

This is the mission behind Rwanda Bean Coffee, which Mwenedata started in his Maine apartment in 2013. Rwanda Bean Coffee works with farmers primarily in Southern Rwanda, who are uniquely positioned to grow the enviable Bourbon Arabica coffee due to their high-altitude environment.

“Everything is done by hand. Done on a small scale. Where you can pick every type of defect, get it one by one,” Mwenedata says. “This is why Rwanda coffee is one of the best in the world.”

Today there are several Rwanda Bean coffee shops in Portland, Maine. The beans are also sold in 30 outlets, including Whole Foods and Hannaford supermarket, and directly to consumers online.

In addition to connecting about 3,000 coffee farmers to the global market, Rwanda Bean Coffee supports them through a profit-share structure where they invest 50% of their net profits into development projects that support the farmers and their community.

Those projects range from education — the business contributed $20,000 toward building a daycare and elementary school in the Gisagara district — to health insurance for farmers and their workers. Although health insurance can cost as little as $5 per person for a year, Mwenedata says many coffee workers still struggle to afford that. In the past, they usually had to wait until the crop was sold to get paid before they could seek medical assistance. 

They’ve also continued to pay the monthly salary for a retired 88-year-old coffee farmer, funded other agricultural projects, and recently purchased chickens for the farmers and others residing in poverty-stricken sectors, which provide both eggs to eat and byproducts to fertilize the coffee crops.

“In the coffee production, it’s not only the people who own the coffee farm but also the people in the community who help them because not everybody has a coffee farm,” Mwenedata says.

Rwanda Bean Coffee now consists of two additional partners, Ben and Danielle Graffius, and employs eight people in Maine. The team provides farmers with vital support around sourcing, packaging, shipping and other administrative details that can be both complex and costly.

To send one container worth of coffee from Rwanda to the States costs approximately $115,000 which includes shipping, customer handlers and brokers fees, in addition to other costs. However, securing coffee in bulk requires a hefty down payment in cash.

Last December, Rwanda Bean Coffee received a loan from Maine-based CDFI Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) of $100,000, in part to enable the company to make bulk purchases and grow their inventory. The funds will also be used to grow a coffee subscription business.

“We are thrilled to provide Rwanda Bean the financing it needs to grow beyond its established retail stores and an expanding number of wholesale accounts to launch a subscription-based coffee service,” says Ryan Green, senior loan and investment officer at CEI. “This will help Mike and Ben diversify their revenue stream, ultimately strengthening their business model and mission impact.”

For the past two years, Mwenedata has been based back in Rwanda, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, working on cultivating the beans and developing a closer relationship with the farmers. They’re currently in the thick of the coffee harvest, which runs from March through July.

Mwenedata found that some of the farmers, even those who had been growing coffee beans for 40 or 50 years, had never tasted a brewed cup of coffee themselves. He’s shown them how to brew the beverage using just wood and fire out in the coffee fields. One such farmer grows a crop previously cultivated by his grandfather. When he finally tasted the coffee his family has grown for generations for the first time, Mwenedata says he had a big smile on his face.

“He told me he never dreamed of really having a cup of coffee,” he says. “He thought [coffee] was like [for] rich people or something. But that’s something that puts fire in you. I want to do so much.”

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.