They’re Making Fair Trade Coffee a Bit Fairer

Rwanda Bean founders meet in a café near a window

The idea for Rwanda Bean took root following a chance encounter at the gym in 2013—when Mike Mwenedata, a Rwandan émigré who was considering an MBA, ran into Nick Mazuroski. The two got to talking and discovered that they were both proponents of sustainability and transparency in business. Nick, with a background in renewable energy, had the business acumen. Mike had the contacts on the ground in his native Rwanda. They both had a passion for helping others. A partnership was born.

Acting as the bridge from farm to cup, Rwanda Bean uses a model of sustainable growth. The Maine-based coffee company has pledged to reinvest half of its profits back into its farmers’ communities, and it has already covered the health insurance for 800 coffee farmers. In 2018, the company’s co-founders, Mike and Nick, acquired a coffee shop in Portland and opened a retail shop/roastery. Here, in this edited chat, the guys talk about their approach to getting started.

Shopify: Coffee production has been a critical part of Rwanda’s growth, yet many coffee farmers in the country remain in poverty. Can you speak about this dynamic and Rwanda Bean’s role in it?

Mike: Growing up, I knew we had good coffee, but I always saw people were poor in the coffee farms. After the genocide, the government put a lot of effort into teaching coffee farmers how they can do agriculture efficiently. But the government can’t do it all. The farmers have limited resources to reach buyers, and that’s where Rwanda Bean comes in: to be the connector to the market.

Shopify: Can you describe some of the projects the reinvested funds are supporting?

Mike: We are still a startup company—we haven’t really started making a profit, but we have been able to contribute on some projects. We have done drying beds and supported a farming co-op with water projects, buying tanks and connecting them to a pump and filter. Then they store it in the towns.

Shopify: What are some sources of support that you relied on in the early days of Rwanda Bean?

Nick: We’ve been really fortunate to have a great network here [in Maine]. Early on, Mike participated in the Maine Startup and Create Week, which gave him some opportunities to pitch and refine the idea. Through that, we met a lot of mentors. As much as I want to say we totally bootstrapped it—no, we definitely relied on other folks. Early on, we sought out experts in the field to surround ourselves with what we didn’t have and answer the questions we didn’t know how to answer.

My country [has come] a long way. Twenty years ago, it was in the darkness; now [it is] moving forward.

Mike Mwenedata

Shopify: What were some of the biggest challenges you had to address in the early days?

Nick: There were early-stage logistical problems: how can we get a trusted source of beans from the east coast in Africa to the East Coast of the U.S.? Where do we warehouse? Where do we roast? What products did we want to focus on? At an early stage, we sold green coffee wholesale, but quickly saw a higher margin potential in the roasted coffee side.

Shopify: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are thinking about entering a foreign market or industry?

Mike: Never be afraid to talk about it with friends and family. If it’s something you are passionate about, share it with people and see what they think.

Shopify: Where does Rwanda Bean fit in with your personal ambitions?

Mike: I think Rwanda Bean is going to give me the chance to serve coffee to as many people as I can, generate revenue, and say, “Now, we’re going to build a water supply here so you don’t have to walk 10 miles with 5 gallons of water on your head.” Those people start smiling. They sing, they dance. My country [has come] a long way. Twenty years ago, it was in the darkness; now [it is] moving forward. I want to use the opportunity I have here to be a part of that.

Words by Farah Momen
Photo courtesy of Rwanda Bean