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May 19, 2022

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Vancouver coffee shop owner serves coffee, mankind

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
Published:
5 Photos
James Mbuya, owner of a new coffee shop in Uptown Village called Richland Hub, takes a break behind the front counter Friday morning. The "Karibu" sign behind him means "Welcome" in Swahili.
James Mbuya, owner of a new coffee shop in Uptown Village called Richland Hub, takes a break behind the front counter Friday morning. The "Karibu" sign behind him means "Welcome" in Swahili. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

One of the first things you’ll see when walking into Vancouver’s newest coffee shop, Richland Hub, is photos from owner James Bonny Mbuya’s village in Tanzania near Mount Kilimanjaro.

The photos show a woman carrying a basket of tea on her head through high crops, a pair of hands tearing apart cacao and a beat-up truck idling on a dirt road on its way to carrying tea to market.

“I want people to get involved in the mission,” Mbuya said about his new business.

Richland Hub, 2420 Main St., offers coffee, tea, cacao, cashews and honey that Mbuya imports from Tanzania. Mbuya works with Tanzanian farmers to help them raise money to build new hospitals in rural areas; he aims to prevent childbirth issues because women have to travel far to the hospitals in the tribal villages of his country.

“In a way, this store will be unique, but I’ll call it a coffee shop,” he said.

Mbuya was born into the Chaga tribe in Tanzania, where coffee farming is a big source of revenue for many locals. Many small-scale coffee farmers, including Mbuya’s grandparents, have been growing coffee since European colonization in the 1800s and 1900s.

“My family has a piece of land, and they grow the coffee,” he said.

Seeking to earn a degree, Mbuya moved to California to attend Chaffey College in 2009. He earned his undergraduate degree in computer engineering and his master’s degree in cybersecurity, and he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, working in the combat engineering battalions, he said. Mbuya was deployed to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa to help build bridges and buildings in combat zones, he said.

“One thing that I’ve learned is that a lot of people helped me along the way,” he said. “It solidified my will to help other people.”

While stationed in Texas, Mbuya flew to Washington to visit relatives, and he “fell in love with this place,” he said. “You get all the seasons, and the people are really nice.”

Founding Richland Hub

Mbuya decided to move to Vancouver in 2014, and in 2018, he founded Richland Hub, named after the “rich land” in Tanzania, where almost anything they plant will grow, he said. At first, the business was solely online.

Mbuya has always wanted to open his own coffee company, and moving to Vancouver after the military (he is still in the U.S. Navy Reserve) was the best place and time.

“The main goal for me is to be connected to the farmers and know where the product is coming from. I know the need and the struggle of all of them in the rural area,” he said.

Women are the majority of the coffee farmers in and around his hometown, and they deal with health care access.

“One thing that’s really tough for me is that in rural areas, access to hospitals is a big, big problem. People have to go very far to get medical attention. A lot of women die because they can’t make it to the clinic before birth. How is that possible? They don’t even have access to medical information to know what to do before birth.”

“This is something I can start with,” he said. “My main focus is to build as many clinics as possible.”

Mbuya had traveled to Tanzania multiple times and met with the farmers, and in 2019, he imported his first 5-ton shipment of coffee from the farmers. His idea was first to sell it unroasted wholesale and in smaller batches online and in person.

There was a lot of trial and error for Mbuya, who’d never done anything with international trading, importing or selling. As the coffee was midway to the U.S., Mbuya still hadn’t figured out how to clear it with U.S. Customs, so he had to scramble to hire agents to do it for him.

“It was a very tough experience,” he said.

Once the coffee was brought to a warehouse in Portland, Mbuya started cold-calling and emailing coffee roasters to buy his coffee.

“The very first company I sold to was Hidden River Roasters in Camas,” he said. “It was a good feeling. It was really challenging. But it was rewarding because I got to learn a lot.”

As Mbuya gained more customers and imported more coffee, he always wanted to open a coffee shop in Vancouver. While driving around, he discovered the current spot at 2420 Main St., a former Starbucks, was available to lease, and he jumped on it.

Richland Hub is holding a soft opening on April 22 and a grand opening on a date in May that’s not set yet, he said. Tenant renovations are nearly complete to give the space wooden accents and African artwork that reflects the Chaga tribe in Tanzania.

“I want the customer to experience what the land has to offer,” he said. “The soil can grow about anything. That’s the idea for Richland Hub: It comes from the rich land and it’s a hub for everything.”

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