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Burundi - Field notes from Origin

  • 4 min read

In the world of speciality coffee, Burundi is Africa’s new guy. Landlocked between Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is one of the smallest and poorest countries in the Great Lakes region, right at the heart of the continent. Agriculture is almost all there is to the economy. To earn even a scratch of living, you need to grow something — and most farmers in Burundi choose to grow coffee.

For good reason: thebourbon arabica tree enjoys the hot-rainy-cool climate in the north of the country, and while the crop can’t compete on quality or volume with a coffee pro like Ethiopia, it is improving year by year

Dear Green travelled to this beautiful country last year as part of our mission to understand the ethics and the complexities of coffee production around the world. Each trip is an intense, perspective-altering adventure, and we spend much of the journey talking to our coffee peers and busily scribbling down notes. The idea is to bring what we learn at origin from the farmers, traders and exporters back home to our roastery in Glasgow and to be confident in the ethics of our coffee purchasing decisions.

In Burundi, quite quickly we saw how business is burdened by the past: the country was ravaged in the 1990s by a civil war that spilled into Rwanda and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The coffee trade, which took off in the 1930s under Belgian colonial rule, was cut in half by the violence and its wake. Today Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world, representing just 0.01 per cent of global GDP. Corruption is still rife, and access to finance is scarce. But with coffee, there is some cause for hope.  

Driving from Kigali to explore the northern Ngozi region of Burundi, the slick tarmac roads built with regeneration funds in Rwanda start to give way to a more rural, visibly tougher way of life. Part of the road had been lined with palm leaves to honour the president, who had recently passed along the same route. We were humbled (and slightly embarrassed) to get the red-carpet treatment ourselves at a few farms we visited, but it would be wrong to romanticise or pity the living that people here make from coffee. A local farmer might survive just by picking a small crop to sell to the next village, or to swap for melon or other food. Something as simple as a bicycle might create a competitive advantage, speeding the transport of home grown produce from village to village. But farmers will also walk the extra mile for sharper deals: word gets around at social gatherings and church services about which washing stations are offering the best prices. And in common with businesses elsewhere there are production targets, flipcharts and smartphones, used by the managers at washing stations to control and record the flow of coffee cherry.

The Burundian government is hard-headed too about quality. Ten years ago, it established a controlling body, L’Autorite de Regulation de la Filiere Café, which has the power to reject substandard coffee crops for export. If the cherries are overripe, for example, they won’t be bought. This has helped to protect and promote the reputation of Burundian coffee even if the scale of exports has yet to really take off. In 2009, the government also started to sell off its coffee washing stations to private owners, though around 70 are still state-run. We stopped at various washing stations includingMubuga, Ruhengera and Kibingo (Kinga), the trading and processing hubs where the coffee cherry is bought and sorted before being pulped, fermented, washed and then spread outdoors on mesh tables to dry in the Burundian sun. As the pulped seed dries, the coffee parchment fades into a light colour, but freshly picked it is as red as the bright patterns of the local women’s kanga clothing. Seeing the new red cherry at the beginning of the coffee journey is a joyful sight, and prices are currently very competitive - around 500-550 Burundian francs per kilogram.

Our heads buzzing with everything we’d already seen, we headed to visit theRama Dufatanemunda women’s co-operative, which translates roughly as “the self-empowered group”. This is a brilliant venture, aimed at recruiting and training women in the coffee trade, set up with help from the Swiss-funded Kahawatu Foundation.

Though women make up half the labour force in Burundi, they are often given menial roles in coffee: picking the cherries into a basket, carrying a baby at the same time. (Today, around a fifth of Burundi’s registered coffee farmers are female.) The Rama co-op teaches the women the more technical side of coffee, right from planting the seedling through to skills such as pruning, mulching, judging when to pick, budgeting for pesticide and organising logistics.

Two years after planting the seedlings and waiting for them to grow, the harvest from the 127 strong Rama Co-op's first coffee crop was processed at the nearby Muguba washing station producing 400kg of naturally processed parchment coffee. In a few more years the trees will be cut back again to improve the yield. But in the meantime, the women told us, they need better tools. In Burundi even a pair of secateurs is expensive and difficult to come by.

There will undoubtedly be gains from collective efforts such as the Rama co-op, and from forward-thinking exporters who are willing to invest in new washing stations that will also raise production standards. Already Burundi coffee is starting to make more of a name for itself internationally, and it was the showcase country at the Speciality Coffee Association Expo in Boston this spring.

Burundi’s coffee story continues. We’ll be watching closely at Dear Green to see what happens, and we look forward to having Burundian beans in the hopper again soon.

Dear Green was hosted in Burundi by32cup, Sucafina, Kahawatu Foundation, Budeca Mill and Bugestal.

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