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Burundi’s special appeal

From the December 2016 issue.

Despite being one of Africa’s least stable nations, Burundi’s coffee industry is getting the attention of specialty coffee enthusiasts around the globe.

A coffee farm in Burundi

It was coffee harvest in May 2015, Ben and Kristy Carlson’s third year of coffee production in Burundi, in east Africa’s Great Lakes region, for their specialty brand Long Miles Coffee.

The United States Embassy in the capital Bujumbura was evacuating American citizens after an attempted military coup following weeks of protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term.

The American couple had been living in the country for four years and had built two coffee washing stations in the central highlands, each costing about US$150,000.

A sustained period of instability followed the attempted coup, into 2016.

More than 250,000 Burundians fled the country, most of whom are still in refugee camps in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The period brought a general lawlessness that made the couple question whether they had made the right choice in investing so heavily in a country with such a fragile social fabric.

“I think the biggest challenge was just as a family,” Ben Carlson tells Global Coffee Report. “If you stay in Burundi, you know, we’re Americans, the US embassy evacuated all Americans but it was in the middle of harvest, so what do you do?”

The couple was also pregnant with their third child. Rather than stay in the capital where the schools were closed and there was shooting and grenade explosions almost every night, they spent the time in small towns outside the city.

The crisis didn’t affect Long Miles’ coffee production, however, and aside from a delay on export, the growth they had seen since beginning in 2013 continued.

Unfulfilled potential
Burundi’s Belgian colonial administrators started coffee production in the tiny country in the early 20th century.

Almost one hundred years later, it is these same trees that the country relies on to produce a decreasing annual yield of the crop that is its main export and earner of dollars – about 60 per cent of its total export, depending on the year.

Burundi is one of the world’s poorest and hungriest nations, where 64.6 per cent of the population lives below the national poverty line, and whose population is growing at an annual rate of 3 per cent.

Augustin Manirakiza is the communication, marketing and promotion manager for Intercafé, a body set up to represent all stakeholders in the country’s coffee industry.

“We used to have 40,000 metric tonnes a year,” he says. “Now we are around 15,000 metric tonnes a year, and some years even only 6000 tonnes.”

A US$55 million World Bank grant aims to increase Burundi’s coffee production toward what it estimates is its potential of 50,000 metric tonnes per annum, by the year 2021.

Luis Garcia, the general manager of Greenco, a subsidiary of Geneva-based Bercher Coffee Consulting, says the age of the trees is the main reason production of coffee has fallen so dramatically.

“Basically, when they’re more than 20 or 30 years old, you don’t produce as much. They have trees that are close to a hundred years old. Most of those trees they produce one year, the other year they don’t produce,” Garcia says.

A lack of knowledge and training in optimum agronomic practices has also contributed to the decreasing yield. Burundi has suffered frequent periods of sustained violence, attempted genocides, and a civil war that lasted from 1993 until 2005.

Greenco began in early 2015, hiring 13 washing stations from Webcor, a company that had recently left the industry.

Despite the political turmoil of that year, Greenco won the Burundi Cup of Excellence.

“When we won that I realised: wow, this has a huge potential,” says Garcia.

He shares Carlson’s optimism about the potential for Burundian coffee to make its mark in the international specialty coffee market, and both believe that pursuing that market is crucial to the survival of Burundi’s industry, which has traditionally been based in commodity coffee.

Burundian coffee farmer

Better coffee, better world
“Coffee’s really important to Burundi because it’s the number one foreign earning export and there’s really not a lot of other ways that Burundi’s making hard currency, so coffee needs to succeed for Burundi to succeed,” says Carlson.

With the privatisation of Burundi’s coffee industry in 2007, two years after the end of its decade-long civil war, foreign specialty roasters had their first opportunity to source traceable bourbon variety Burundian coffee.

“You’ve got this mélange of semi-state owned washing stations and dry-mills, some multi-nationals, some co-operatives, some private Burundians, and then there’s me, I’m the outlier,” he says.

It was a passion for coffee, and a yearning for adventure that brought Carlson to Burundi in 2010, where he worked for two years as a coffee trader.

“I wanted to be a coffee hunter, a coffee ‘sourcerer’,” he says. “And there was nobody here! Everybody’s in Kenya. Ethiopia, of course. Rwanda, I’d heard about Rwanda but they’ve had a lot of development assistance and help, but Burundi ... nobody knows about Burundi! And when I tasted the coffee it blew my mind.”

“The production was so rudimentary that I realised this was it at its worst. It could only get better. So the potential was enormous.”

After Long Miles’ first year, 2013, in which they produced and exported 80 bags of coffee from 350 growers, Carlson says farmers began lining up to sell to them, as they were paying slightly more per kilogram, offering bonuses, and giving free soil and crop advice and training.

They now work with 4500 coffee growing families.

“We realised as we talked to them, and part of it’s just listening, that farmers just didn’t know how to take care of their trees. You know, all the genocide, the wars and the conflicts and everything else had just left this information gap.”

They hired an agronomist to talk to the farmers and see what they were doing and provide recommendations. Carlson then started a “coffee scout” program as a strategy of integrated pest management (IPM), teaching farmers to sustainably and organically take care of their crops.

The antestia bug, which introduces the bacteria that causes potato defect, is the most common threat to crops in the region.

The Carlsons hired another agronomist before hiring a manager at the second washing station they built, Heza, and doubled their coffee scout team. They currently employ 26 full-time “coffee scouts” as junior agronomists, teaching and liaising with the grower families on behalf of Long Miles Coffee.

Carlson expresses a genuine desire to do something that will help the lives of the farmers whose coffee he buys and exports, and effect a positive change in the Burundi coffee industry, which is what led to he and his wife to build two washing stations.

“So we realised that we couldn’t just trade coffee and work with all these washing stations, we had to have our own [washing stations] if we wanted to effect any change at all. Create a better coffee, create a better world.”

The lure of specialty
Boniface Habonimana, who is the program manager and certification officer for COCOCA, a union of 33 co-operatives around the country that is made up of more than 17,000 farmers, says producing specialty coffee is “the ideal”.

“Everyone in the coffee sector is aiming, anddreaming to produce specialty coffee.”

“We are imitating Oromia [Ethiopia]. Start a co-op, build a washing station, build a dry mill. Use the money to invest back in,” he says.

A key part is also to provide training and guidance to their members, most of whom are illiterate.

“They don’t know the way to exploit the small plot of land they have in order to make it fruitful to them,” he says.

The Kazibaziza washing station, north of Kayanza on the road to Rwanda, belongs to the Dohorerabarimyi co-operative, a COCOCA member. On a Thursday morning in early November, co-op members had gathered for a distribution of grevillea trees, used as a shade tree.

Fifty-year-old farmer Nicolas Bahati says that he appreciated the sharing of knowledge and ways of improving their land that comes from being part of a co-operative, although there had been no other tangible benefits yet.

What he really wants is a raise in the price he is paid per kilogram of coffee, which is currently about 450 Burundian francs (about US$0.28).

Carlson doesn’t envy what the union is tasked with – financing, marketing, selling, and applying for certification of their co-operatives’ coffees.

“I don’t think the world understands poverty. The biggest sign of poverty is desperation. When you’re desperate you do things and you work a certain way and you interact in a certain way that doesn’t necessarily make sense to someone who has never been desperate before,” he says.

In a country such as Burundi, where the foremost thing on most rural peoples’ minds are their crops and whether they have enough food to eat on a given day, Carlson thinks it will always be tough to convince co-operative members to make sacrifices in order to invest back into something that will not provide an immediate reward.

“I want to create change, I want to create transformation but I want to do it through business because I think that’s the long-term sustainable way to impact the community. It’s through business. I mean this is a product that the world wants, that you’re creating. You’re going to get rewarded for it and it should make a better world.”

Intercafé’s Augustin Manirakiza believes the privatisation of the industry is not happening quickly enough, and so the co-operative model is popular among farmers.

“Particularly now, there are tendencies that buyers would like to buy coffee from co-ops, from coffee farmers directly. So this is a trend that needs to be caught by these coffee farmers,” he says.

But on specialty coffee, he is emphatic.

“That’s where we have to go. We have a small quantity. We cannot influence the world market. We have good coffee, so we have to focus on producing specialty coffee. That’s the strategy.”

A coffee farm in Burundi

Setting down roots
Carlson, thinking of his young family, says that although there were some scary times, he believes they came out of the uncertainty stronger than before, having rallied together as a team.

Returning to Burundi in October 2015, after going to South Africa for their daughter’s birth, they were sitting on the balcony of their house in Bujumbura, discussing the security situation.

“All of a sudden this battle breaks out and these tracer bullets just start flying over our house, and you could hear it – duh duh duh duh. Grab the kids and go and find a safe spot and we’re like ‘what are we doing!?’”

“And then the next day comes and you’re like ‘oh it’s a beautiful day’, and we’re like ‘okay we can do this’ but if you asked us last night we were just yelling at ourselves ‘what are we doing!?’

“But then the next day the sun comes out, the Congo mountains are purple in the sunrise, you’ve got Lake Tanganyika, you’ve got this breeze, it’s beautiful. Drinking a cup of our own coffee, and it’s like ‘actually this is what we want to do’,” he says.

“So I’m just glad that the bullets have stopped, it’s kinda nice.” GCR

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