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Burundi is a tiny country in Central Africa, just south of Rwanda. That’s usually how we need to begin a conversation about Burundi. There’s a general lack of knowledge when it comes to geography in the States, but more—Burundi has been largely absent from the conversation when it comes to both world news and coffee. This is despite the fact that Burundi has suffered a long history of war, including the horrific genocide that most of us are familiar with in reference to Rwanda in 1994.
The national recognition of the genocide brought a lot of international aid and rebuilding to Rwanda, but the rebuilding in Burundi has been slower and it remains one of the five poorest countries in the world by GDP. Furthermore, Burundi and Rwanda have only been independent nations since 1962, and coffee is a relatively new crop in the area, introduced by the Belgians in the 1930s. That’s pretty recent compared to most of the countries we buy coffee from—even so, coffee is now the number one export commodity in Burundi.
Coffee in Burundi has not historically been known for quality, though the varieties (mostly Bourbon and Bourbon mutations) and the elevation are great for coffee growing. Most of the coffee in Burundi in the past has been blended together and sold as generic coffee without much separation of quality, area etc. Because of this, there wasn’t really much to attract specialty buyers, and especially on the high end. The coffee sector in Burundi has gone from private companies to government controlled and more recently back to privatization. There have been issues with every form of policy it seems, which unfortunately can only be expected in a poverty stricken country wrought with corruption and residual effects of tribal warfare. Even so, Burundi has the potential to become a leader in coffee quality, and with quality can come better lives and resources for its farmers if the supply chain remains ethical. Burundi has more or less been trying to follow in Rwanda’s footsteps, trying to shift their exports from cheap blender coffee to high quality lots that can fetch a better price, but it lacks the infrastructure, agricultural and marketing resources that Rwanda has developed in recent years—which is probably why you’re now familiar with coffee from Rwanda and possibly not Burundi. The two countries share similar varieties, elevation, flavor profile and potential, so if you are familiar with and enjoy Rwandan coffee, I strongly believe that there’s somewhere for Burundi in your coffee drinking life too.
Over the past five years, we’ve noticed a lot of changes with coffee from Burundi, both in quality and in customer recognition. Coffee drinkers in our market have gone from avoiding ordering Burundi because they didn’t know what it was, to requesting it for much of the year because it’s a coffee they’ve grown to love. While quality can fluctuate up and down in any origin for a multitude of reasons, in our experience, Burundi has followed an upward slope. We’ve also seen a remarkable decrease in the dreaded “potato defect” that affects coffee in Burundi and Rwanda. The defect comes in isolated occurrence and is most likely caused by the Antestia bug. While the problem is some distance away from being eliminated, there are plenty of ways to address it in the growing, sorting and even when we reach the brewing stage. I wrote a little warning blog about potato defect here if you’d like some detail. If anything, you’ll want to click it to see the amazing smiling potato graphic I made:
Evil Potatoes! – March 2014
This was my first trip to Burundi, though we have been buying coffee from this country for many years. For the past three, we’ve worked with Long Miles Coffee Project in some way or another—owned by Ben and Kristy Carlson (with two cute kids in tow.) Long Miles Coffee Project consists of two washing stations in the Muramvya and Kayanza provinces of Burundi. The washing station serves as the selling point for producers to bring their coffee cherries and have them processed, and sold on the market. The washing station can be just that—simply an avenue to get coffee sold, or be a place that becomes a resource center for Burundian coffee producers to better their lives through improved farming methods, thus raising quality and value of the coffee and fetching a better price. Long Miles aims to be an organization that achieves these quality and business goals for producers.
The coffees we are offering this year are from their first washing station, Bukeye, which is in the small town of the same name in Muramvya. We’ve seen great improvements on all levels with coffee from Bukeye from last year to now, and we can only expect greater things for years to come with the improvements Long Miles has made to water quality, processing, farmer education, and one entire harvest season under their belt. Bukeye is not very far from the city, Bujumbura, yet when you get out there the landscape, climate and access to resources change dramatically. One of the things that one would expect to change when heading “out to the country” is the density of people—but in Burundi that isn’t case. The roads are crowded with people walking and there aren’t many cars. Almost 90 percent of the population live in rural areas, a statistic that is almost flip flopped for the United States where only 18-20 percent of the population is rural. There’s also a heck of a lot of people living in this small country. Burundi is about an eighth of the land size of Minnesota, yet its population is nearly the equivalent Minnesota and Wisconsin combined. All this being said, neighbors are very close and most Burundians own small amounts of coffee trees. They are dependent on the community, collaboration and the washing station to make any money growing coffee.
The Long Miles Bukeye station employs 160 people and processes cherry from 600 individual farmers, as well as members from two small coops. Most of the processing here is traditional, fully washed Burundian style, but they are also experimenting with honeys and naturals. All the coffee is dried on raised beds with some experimentation with bed levels and parabolic dryers. Each farmer’s contribution is recorded in detail, so that each lot is traceable back to every farmer that contributed. LMCP has established programs to help farmers combat low quality, low yield, pests and diseases. A lot of this education is basic, but it’s education many of the farmers in this area have never had. At one point in Burundi, it was illegal to pull up your coffee trees. For much of these peoples’ lives, coffee has simply been a cash crop that was a way to make a little money—few people in the Bukeye area saw it as something that could be transformative. With the right resources and results in the form of premiums on their coffee, farmers who have been working with Long Miles are beginning to understand that there is a way to improve their lives by growing coffee and learning how to do it well to produce quality.
Part of the Long Miles approach to being washing station owners is to learn the needs of the community, the people who are growing the coffee and get deeper into their individual stories and lives. Ben told me that when they were building the station they were asking the community around Bukeye what they hoped for, what would make them a good asset to the community. He said that many people were surprised because they had never been asked these questions before—especially when it came to coffee. The number one wish they hoped for was for them not to be corrupt. The transparency and direct relationships that the Carlsons are maintaining are a way to further help farmers understand that their coffee is valuable, and that with the proper outlet that can be rewarded for it.
All this seems very brief, in that all origins are extremely complex and different and I can’t possibly convey all the information I’ve gathered so far in one article and keep anyone’s attention. My hope is that when you have a cup you’ll understand why Burundian coffee is worth investing in. The excellence that we’re already experiencing with the coffees from the small communities can only escalate with the right resources and inspiration.
Check out our current Burundi offerings from the Long Miles Coffee Bukeye Station here:
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