On Saturdays at the Portland State University farmers market, Francis Kungu stands behind colorful bags of coffee beans and roasted macadamia nuts. He pours hot cups of drip coffee for customers and gently nudges them to try it black.
Kungu and his wife, Maya Benham, are the founders and owners of Exilior Coffee, which specializes in roasting sustainable, directly imported Kenyan coffee and macadamia nuts. Beyond selling freshly brewed coffee, bags of beans, and roasted macadamia nuts at the Shemanski Park and PSU farmers markets, Exilior appears on shelves at grocers like Market of Choice, Wellspent Market, and People’s Food Co-op. The brand has developed a loyal following in its almost three years running, but Kungu’s passion for coffee far predates his arrival at Portland farmers markets.
Kungu, who grew up in a family of sharecroppers and activists in Kenya, is one of the city’s biggest advocates of Kenyan coffee culture. He has spent seven years seeking out optimal seedlings and growers, navigating bureaucratic red tape, and building relationships with growers to bring responsibly sourced Kenyan coffee directly to Portlanders. In early 2016, Kungu and Benham opened Jamii, a wholesale coffee-bean business that exclusively imports from Kenya; they soon became the leading supplier of Kenyan coffee beans in Oregon, with clients like Sisters Coffee Company and Case Study Coffee. When they faced an excess of product early in the pandemic, they began roasting their own coffee, and launched Exilior in 2021. For Kungu, Exilior is not just about celebrating the country’s roasts — it’s also about directly supporting the coffee farmers in his home country who have been systematically disenfranchised for centuries.
Kungu’s and Benham’s foray into the coffee business began with a Starbucks gift card and a meet-cute. Kungu came to the United States from Kenya in 2007 to train as a commercial airline pilot. While he was in training, a friend set him up on a blind date with Benham. He had been gifted a Starbucks gift card, but unsure of what it was for or how to use it (“I was like, ‘Is this a credit card?’”), he asked Benham, who was well acquainted with local coffee culture, for guidance. Benham took Kungu to Starbucks for the first time, and many more coffee dates followed.
“That first time, I realized, ‘Wow, people love coffee,’” Kungu says. “But as I got into drinking more coffee, I was looking for a specific taste of Kenyan coffee that I’m used to… It should have a black currant flavor, and no bitterness.” Kungu couldn’t find anything close.
Kenya’s climate and rich volcanic soil are ideal for growing coffee. Situated near the equator, Kenyan coffee beans mature slowly in consistent sunlight, resulting in more concentrated sugars in the bean. Kenyan coffee growers use a distinctive double-wash process, which means, according to Kungu, that “by the time you get [the beans], even before roasting, the coffee smells fruity. It’s a beautiful aroma.” Kenyan coffee is consistently ranked as one of the world’s finest, but those accolades aren’t reflected in the growing environment back home.
“Everyone knows about Kenyan coffee,” Kungu says. “They will tell you it’s the best. But then why is Kenya only producing at 20 percent of its capacity?”
Under British colonial rule in the early 1900s, it became illegal for Kenyans to grow coffee, and locals could work only for meager wages at European-controlled plantations. Even after Kenya gained independence in the 1960s, outdated colonial regulations and failed policies dictated that farmers could sell their beans only to government-run auction houses at unviable prices, and it was illegal for growers to independently roast their own product. Over time, many farmers abandoned coffee shrubs for more profitable crops.
In 2008, Kungu and Benham began searching for ways to partner directly with Kenyan farmers and improve their wages while bringing quality Kenyan coffee to Oregon. The cause is personal: Growing up, Kungu’s family were sharecroppers who grew pyrethrum, a natural pesticide. When Kungu was 9, the market for pyrethrum collapsed with the rise of synthetic pesticides, and his family was thrust into poverty.
“That never escaped me because we [were] poor, not because of our own doing but because of something we [couldn’t] control,” Kungu says.
Social justice work is intertwined with Kungu’s and Benham’s entrepreneurial pursuits and part of Kungu’s family history. His uncle was a political prisoner in the resistance movement against the Moi dictatorship in the ’90s, and Kungu’s own mother was incarcerated for fighting for her brother’s release.
Prior to 2016, outdated colonial regulations made it illegal to import coffee directly from Kenyan farmers, and beans could be purchased only at government-run auctions. The unsustainably low prices made growing coffee a losing business. The pair almost gave up on their importing aspirations, but once the regulations were lifted, Kungu flew to Kenya and asked local friends to introduce him to existing coffee growers. He began building relationships with farmers, partnered with a local cooperative that could export beans, and filed the necessary paperwork with the Kenyan government to begin importing.
Early on in his search for beans, Kungu met Charles Mutwiri, a coffee farmer in the Meru region. Mutwiri was already actively organizing women and youth farmers to help them start growing beans, but while his and the couple’s humanitarian interests aligned, the coffee Mutwiri was producing lacked the balanced black-currant flavor Kungu was searching for. Kungu told him so directly, and that forthrightness built trust. The two teamed up: Kungu researched the optimal coffee seedlings to plant, and Mutwiri began developing techniques to enrich the soil and increase plant yield. For a full year, Mutwiri tracked every single cost pertaining to coffee farming in order to land on a realistic and fair price for the beans.
In collaboration with Mutwiri, Kungu and Benham helped growers plant their first coffee seedlings, including more than 150 women farmers. They ran business models and determined that they could afford to buy beans at three to four times the market rate while cutting out pricey middlemen.
After years of sowing the actual seeds (or seedlings) of their importing company, COVID-19 hit. As coffee roasters and cafes shut down, so did demand for the couple’s raw product. Fatefully, Benham’s cousin Paul Allen is an accomplished roaster with long-standing Newberg roastery Caravan Coffee, and with his help the pair decided to roast their excess stock of beans. The couple started offering bags for sale to family and friends on Facebook; they quickly sold out and formed Exilior to sell their roasts to the public.
As Exilior continues to grow, in the coming year Kungu and Benham hope to open a cafe in Dundee, where they live with their three children. But outside of their work celebrating Kenyan coffee and its growers, they also want to use Exilior to support the country’s kids. Benham was born in India and adopted as an infant by Oregonian parents, and she and Kungu are personally driven by the vision that all kids should have equal access to education and resources, no matter where in the world they are born. Thus, a percentage of all Exilior sales goes directly to Kenyan youth — they have already helped pay the tuition for seven students to go to college and high school. Kungu’s motivation as an entrepreneur is simple: “I want to create change.”