Hollywood celebrity Matthew Leutwyler opens pizza joint in Kigali

Hollywood celebrity Matthew talks to TNT journalist during the interview in Kigali on Saturday. Sam Ngendahimana.

When renowned American film director Matthew Leutwyler made his first trip to Rwanda in 2012, he had an eye on philanthropy activities.  Doing business in Rwanda is not something that had crossed his mind.

 “A friend of mine convinced me to come with her to Rwanda and we volunteered at Noel Orphanage in Gisenyi for about a month, and when I was leaving there I said to myself that this is going to be odd if I don’t talk to these kids again. I decided to take them to a boarding school,” Leutwyler said, giving a sneak pick into how his journey to the country began.

He put three children—whom he could visit twice every year—into boarding school. They performed well.

Few months later, Leutwyler was already establishing talks with friends back home about advancing charity work in Rwanda.

These talks resulted into ‘We Are Limitless’—a charity organisation that helps orphans and street kids to get into school. They currently support more than 40 vulnerable students.

It is well over six years down the road when the film writer, director and producer established this organisation and providing basic needs like tuition, food, clothes and emotional support to the kids.

“Through the process of supporting kids I started thinking that I should maybe open a business here and that business that could use the profits to help support the kids, and also a place where kids can be when they graduate,” he said, while narrating how the idea to start a pizza joint came about.

Less than two weeks ago, Leutwyler officially unveiled a pizza joint in Kigali called Lavana.

Leutwyler, for the avid movie lovers, know him as a Hollywood producer and director who has made some of the popular movies that scooped awards and featured big names in the industry.

They include Dead & Breakfast, which featured Portia de Rossi and former American movie star, David Carradine, and Unearthed, which features Canadian actress and television star Emmanuelle Vaugier as well as The River Why, among others.

Leutwyler is still passionate about storytelling and wants to make Lavana a creative space not just where people can go for unique artisan pizza in town, but where they can get to do other interesting activities.

“We built a pizza [spot] here and we put up a giant screen. We don’t want to make this an entertainment place but a place where Spoken Word can be held, jazz music can be played, and movie night on the big screen,” he told The New Times in an exclusive interview.

Why pizza?

The producer links his idea to start a pizza business with his passion for food and specifically for pizza, which he previously used to make at dinner parties for friends.

“Five years ago in LA (Los Angeles I would have a pizza party every month at my house. It just became a thing, and the only thing you had to bring to the party was expensive wine. My friend’s always asked me to open a pizza house in LA but I told them I wasn’t ready to compete in LA,” he narrated.

Now, Leutwyler is using his passion to bring a unique kind of pizza to town.

“Pizza doesn’t have to be like fast-food, it can be gourmet. You can make it out of good ingredients – great meat, great cheese, and great flour. That’s kind of what we are doing here,” he said.

He believes restaurants, food, and dinner parties bring people together, reason why he decided to set up such a spot.

“We wanted this space to be a creative space where we are always doing something different, and helping art community to grow in Rwanda. A small but kind of vibrant film community certainly wants to do things here,” he noted.

Already, Leutwyler together with his Hollywood-based friends, Erik Palladino and Vincent Ventresca, have co-created a comedy TV pilot which combines the passion of filmmaking with the charity.

The TV series, he said, is set against the backdrop of a children’s NGO in Rwanda. The show skewers the idea of the white saviour “industrial complex” and western misconceptions of Africa in general.

The show, Volunteers, was shot from Rwanda and most of the casting crew are Rwandans.