Jocelyne Kamikazi ’19

Every business owner has a different vision that they wish to make reality, and different reasons that drive them to pursue that dream. For Jocelyne Kamikazi ‘19, owner of Burundi Star Coffee in Portland, her business was a calling that drew inspiration from for her whole life. Jocelyne grew up in Burundi, a country in east-central Africa, and moved to Maine with her husband and 4-year-old son as asylum seekers in 2006.

Burundi Star Coffee, informed by her University of Southern Maine experience (as a Business Management major and Accounting minor), helped bridge her background in Burundi with her new home. It has also helped her bring sustainable business, education, and health care opportunities to people in Burundi while sharing Burundi culture—and coffee—with her community in Maine.

“Opening a business in Portland is a challenge for anyone,” Jocelyne told us, “but when it comes to a non-experienced student and immigrant, it is another story. At USM I learned to ask for help when I need it and to never give up on your goals and dreams. It wasn’t easy to attend University, as English is my 5th language, and I was raising children with a full-time job, but I enjoyed being at USM and I got great experience in many ways.” 

She learned the hard work and determination required to succeed in such circumstances from a young age. Prior to moving to the United States, Jocelyne worked at her family’s coffee farming business throughout her youth, spending long days picking cherries, weighing the harvest, and keeping records. She later gained extensive experience in bookkeeping and management, among other professional skills, but when she moved to the United States she was unable to find work using this experience. Instead, she served as an interpreter at Maine Medical Center while taking lessons to improve her English.

In 2018, she went back to Burundi to visit her family, and was shocked to discover that her family and community was forced to give up coffee farming. “I arrived in Burundi a few days before the due date for coffee farmers to get paid for the cherries that they sold a few months ago,” she said. “Growing up, the pay day was special for most families in Burundi. However, things had changed since I left Burundi. Coffee farmers abandoned growing coffee or taking care of the coffee trees because the price they got was very low compared to what they spent.” 

“It didn’t seem right to me,” she continued, “knowing Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world and knowing that coffee is one of the products that brings foreign money to the country. When I came back to the USA I decided to use my presence here to help to give attention back to Burundi coffee farmers by doing a direct trade with farmers and bringing a fair trade to Burundi.” 

After she returned to the United States she had a chance meeting with Mike Mwenedata, who co-owns Portland’s Rwanda Bean. From there, she was inspired to do for Burundi what he was doing for Rwanda—create a business in Maine that would also help the community she originally came from as well as those like it.

She started the business while completing her degree. “It was very challenging to start a business after graduation because I didn’t have good experience,” she said. “The USM experience was great, especially the critical thinking and knowledge from different classes. The amount of work I got while taking classes helped to manage my start-up business and be able to even survive the pandemic.”

Jocelyne got through the pandemic in part by cooking traditional African meals for frontline workers who had a hard time getting food. Nonetheless, the pandemic created challenges that she is still striving to overcome, including access to business loans and marketing funds, and staffing. She invested more time in social media, citing the fact that people in Maine don’t really know much about Burundi coffee as another challenge.

For those who don’t know, Burundi coffee is wonderfully delicious. And getting it from Burundi Star Coffee helps women and girls, farmers, and entire communities in Burundi—all while supporting a USM alum here in Portland. Now that’s a visionary business plan.

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