Rwanda Bean Company is, it seems safe to say, the first coffee shop to have locations both in Maine and in the small eastern African republic of Rwanda. Not even the transnational coffee leviathan Starbucks can stake that claim. And while many U.S. coffee roasters talk the talk about a commitment to the places and people producing their beans, Rwanda Bean’s relationship to its coffee source is especially personal.
Farm workers in Rwanda carry beans that eventually wind up in the roaster at Thompson’s Point.
Founder Mike Mwenedata was nine years old when, in 1994, his entire immediate family was killed during the genocidal Rwandan Civil War. Mwenedata spent the rest of his childhood as an orphan, went on to study computational and applied math at a Rwandan university, and, in 2011, immigrated to the United States. After settling in Portland, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern Maine — and he noticed that people here were happily shelling out three or four bucks for a cup of coffee, even though only the smallest fractions of those proceeds ever trickled back down to farmers in developing countries.
“That hit me so hard, knowing that what people spend for a coffee can feed a family for days or can almost cover health-insurance premiums for a person for a whole year in Rwanda,” Mwenedata says. “I started questioning: Why are people back home struggling?”
Rwanda Bean founder Mike Mwenedata;Mwenedata’s partners, Danielle and Ben Graffius.
In 2013, Mwenedata launched Rwanda Bean’s first location, in South Portland. In 2018, joined by business partners Danielle and Ben Graffius, he opened a second, in Portland’s Deering neighborhood. This spring, Rwanda Bean opened its third outpost in the area, a flagship roasting facility and café at Portland’s Thompson’s Point, with exposed brick, lots of gleaming stainless-steel equipment, and large-format photographs of the lush, mountainous Rwandan landscape hanging from the walls.
Growth hasn’t come at the expense of a sense of social responsibility — 50 percent of profits go back to the coffee-farming communities in Rwanda that supply the beans, paying for new farm equipment, covering health-care costs, and funding projects like school building. Now, Mwenedata is investing in his home country in another way: In late 2019, before the pandemic, he and his wife returned to Rwanda for a visit. Amid the ensuing shutdowns, they stayed. She gave birth to their first child, and he undertook a project that had long been on his mind — building a Rwanda Bean café in Rwanda, where almost all coffee is exported rather than consumed locally. It opened in Kigali, the capital city, at almost the same time as the new Thompson’s Point shop. And while Mwenedata has enjoyed bringing Rwandan coffee to Maine, he’s looking to bring some of Maine back to Rwanda too, like by offering maple syrup as an alternative coffee sweetener.
House-made pop tarts and espresso brewing at Thompson’s Point
“This is something that is close to my heart,” Mwenedata says. “We’re making sure that we are able to provide fresh coffee to the people who love coffee and who also are looking for a way to keep supporting the community not just in Maine but in Rwanda.”