How A Rwandan Immigrant Started A Coffee Roasting Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Mike Mwenedata. I immigrated to America 6 years ago from Rwanda. I’m the co-founder of Rwanda Bean Coffee Company. We source single origin coffee from Rwanda and roast the beans to perfection here in South Portland, Maine
We package and distribute our coffee to our 3 local retail shops:
- 185 Cottage Road, South Portland
- 463 Stevens Avenue, Portland
- 345 Clarks Pond Parkway, South Portland
We also wholesale to local business customers in our area. We have grown from having 10 lbs of Rwandan Coffee to sample with local roasters to now owning our own coffee roaster and purchasing our first container of 40,000 lbs of green coffee beans.
By expanding to include our own retail locations we have been able to increase revenue from under $3000 per month to over $45k per month in less than 1 year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am from Kigali, Rwanda and came here to the United States in 2011 after finishing college searching for a new opportunity. When I first arrived I saw so many coffee shops in Portland, Maine, and Boston. I saw the price that people would spend on a cup of coffee or latte ($3-6 each) sometimes multiple times per day.
This got me thinking about the Rwandan Coffee Farmers back at home and how hard they work, often more than 10 hours per day equally over 70 hours in the field per week.
Know your numbers and work on coming up with realistic projections. Money will run out quick, and it is much better to expect and be prepared for the worst and than be really happy if any better happens.
Despite their incredible work ethic, farmers still have a hard time putting food on their own tables, sending their children to school or paying for health insurance or investing in their farms. I knew that the cost of one latte was roughly equivalent to the cost of health insurance for one farmer for 1 year.
I did not have a job but had but a had studied business in Rwanda so I decided to start Rwanda Bean to capture and return more value back to farmers, their families, and the communities that make this industry possible. Our mission is simple – reinvest 50% of our profits back into farm communities and create a deeper connection between the consumer and their cup of coffee.
I did not have coffee experience and saw the need and wanted to help. I knew the coffee in Rwanda was a great product and I worked hard over the next 3 years to earn enough money to start Rwanda Bean. In 2014 we launched Rwanda Bean and started getting our beans roasted locally in Portland and began delivering samples to anyone who would take them. Soon we were getting great feedback on the coffee samples and receiving requests to order wholesale coffee. We also launched our website and began to sell our beans online. Sales were growing and reorders kept on coming in and we knew we had something to build a business on.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
Being from Rwanda, I knew people involved in the coffee industry and started by talking with them about how we could work together to bring the coffee to the United States market.
The wonderful thing about Rwanda Coffee is that it although Rwanda is a very small country, about 1/3rd the size of Maine it is home to coffee farmers estimated at 500,000 in number with an average of 165 coffee trees per farmer. With such small farms, it makes it very difficult to produce enough coffee to make enough money to live without being in poverty. This is why I wanted to work with as many farmers as I could to help buy their coffee and then give back to help them become more sustainable.
Our coffee beans are sourced from southern provinces in Gisagara District, roughly 30 km from HUYE town district and 2 km from Akanyaru Boarder (Near Burundi)
longitude 290 43’4938”, latitude 20 48’26.91” on high-altitude hills 1478m in partnerships with farmers of cooperative Generalities ltd with over 300 farmers.
We produced fine Arabica bourbon grade A1, with high grade, with suitable quality. Our coffee have different profile taste fruits, Citrus, orange, berry, chocolate, and others,.
Our specialty coffee is handpicked, and hand washed. Our washing station uses natural spring water. The beans are sorted according to quality.
Our mission is to support the community of coffee farmers who are growing a stronger Rwanda by sharing their harvests and stories with the wider world.
What became the challenge was to design the brand and packaging to market the coffee. This was very challenging for a very small business with little revenue to be able to afford the high cost related to designing a brand to make it marketable to the customer base.
Rwanda Bean Company knew that in order to become successful, we needed to create our brand and we were fortunate to be able to raise money through some equity to do this.
We enlisted the help of two talented design companies here in Portland, Might & Main (www.might-main.com) and Pulp and Wire (www.pulpandwire.com) that were instrumental in helping us create a vision and develop our brand.
We wanted our brand and specifically the packaging to represent Rwanda and its hard-working farmers. Our logo of a coffee farmer with carrying coffee in a basket on their head represents the physical work that goes into harvesting the coffee and transporting it from the farm to the washing and drying stations for processing. We wanted this design to spark interest and curiosity about our product and its mission.
We also wanted it to be clear what our mission was and how we invest 50% of our profits back to the farmers. The design and packaging were a result of our brand guide being developed through Pulp and Wire and Might -Main.
These companies know how to build a brand and design that captures the customer and although it was very difficult to pay for the professional design services it was worth every penny. We truly believe that if you have a great product, you can not afford to not invest into the brand and design to help the product stand out among the competition.
If it's a great product, they will return as a customer but if you don’t have a great standout brand and packaging then you may never have that chance.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
Fortunately for us, our website was created at the same time as our brand development so that helped us start out on a professional level and not stress out about trying to do something that we didn’t know much about and allowed us to focus on the coffee itself.
When we launched our business, we started out doing online sales and small local wholesale accounts. Our first account was an established coffee roasting company that not only roasted our coffee for us but bought our beans to be able to sell Rwandan Coffee to their customers. Our very first accounts were a result of delivering samples to different local business that sold coffee and convincing them to carry our product. This was effective and we keep growing through word of mouth customers reaching out to us for more coffee. This helped us become established us in our local area.
We knew that when the time was right it was important to add in a brick and mortar retail store to help get more customers aware of our coffee, and more importantly - our mission. After about 2 years of focusing on wholesale accounts and online sales, we were able to raise money through personal loans and bank financing to get our first retail location opened. Within 6 months, we were able to add two additional retail locations. The next phase was to start focusing on growing our wholesale business and online sales.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The quality of the coffee speaks for itself. Our customers keep coming back because they truly enjoy it and for that we are both proud and grateful. Through our mission of giving back 50% of our profits to the Rwandan farmers, we do attract customers that are interesting in supporting a social mission regarding the products they buy. We believe this also helps us to retain our customers as they know their continued business is helping support a worthy cause.
Our sales currently are roughly 75% direct retail, 20% wholesale and 5% online sales. Having retail coffee shops has really helped grow our internal consumption of coffee. With small wholesale accounts we were averaging around 100 lbs per month of coffee in the beginning and by adding in retail stores we use over 800 lbs per month. The combined use of retail, wholesale and online sales is currently 1800 pounds of coffee per month. Our wholesale accounts continue to grow through direct marketing to business that we know would be a good fit for our coffee. We have also started to work with distributors to help us gain more accounts and starting to grow accounts outside of our local area.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we are seeing the possibilities for growth really start to develop. We are investing in increased marketing to help grow our brand beyond the local markets and become established on the national and international markets.
We are investing in ecommerce and marketing by using consultants that have experience growing business in these areas. We see an opportunity for international growth specifically in the Rwandan Coffee Market and working on relationships with coffee buyers and brokers around the world to get our product more exposure.
Our efforts to make the business profitable have been effective and our current projections have us being profitable within the next 18 months.
Our goal for the next 18 months is too aggressively grow our wholesale and e-commerce business both domestically and internationally.
We expect this growth to be a result of the efforts of bringing on an experienced sales and marketing advisor to our team to help us focus on expanding out our reach to the international platform for our online sales.
By adding in distributors we hope to be able to refocus our efforts from self-distribution to direct target of larger wholesale customers. We believe that our coffee is a great fit for larger companies looking to provide a high-quality coffee to their employees to enjoy but also just by being a customer they become a partner around the social impact of our mission.
We see exciting scalability when we look at growing into the international market both for roasted and green bean supply.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Networking and building professional relationships within your area is by far the most valuable thing you can do as a business.
It is essential to talk with other business owners you know within the community and learn what works well for different businesses.
By building these relationships and networking you end up finding new opportunities that will help you gain new customers and help your business grow.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify (www.shopify.com) as it was a “one stop shop” platform that allowed us to build our website and drive traffic for online sales.
Once your items are set up, we found that it is very easy to receive orders, ship and track packages for your customers.
We use Quickbooks for invoicing and accounting and Square (www.squareup.com) for our Point of Sale system.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If anyone ever tells you that it's easy to start and run your own business, they are lying. That shouldn’t deter anyone who is willing to work hard for what they want, but rather be prepared for the long haul.
Things take time to develop and it's hard to generate revenue to pay for all the things you need to grow, as well as paying the people you need to. You end up finding creative ways to make it all work.
Likely some of the best advice we can offer is do the work to build your business plan and be very conservative on your projections for finances. Know your numbers and work on coming up with realistic projections.
Money will run out quick, and it is much better to expect and be prepared for the worst and than be really happy if any better happens.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for good people who want to work in our retail coffee shops. We are fortunate to have a great staff that currently helps us retain customers by serving great coffee and sharing our mission.
Most recently, we have started to look for individuals that are experienced in growing businesses through e-commerce on a international level. We want to get the right people on our team to help us bring out the potential of this company and take the business to a new level of exciting growth.
Where can we go to learn more?
- [email protected]
Rwanda Bean Coffee has provided an update on their business!
About 3 years ago, we followed up with Rwanda Bean Coffee to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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