New Coffees on the Horizon
We’re always excited about a new arriving shipment or a great sample we’ve cupped, and we can’t wait to share that excitement with you, because we know you share our passion for great coffees. From now until early December we are expecting some truly fantastic (and diverse) new shipments of fully washed, natural & honey lots from Burundi, one of our all-time favourite origins. While the quality of the coffee speaks for itself, we wanted to tell you a bit more about the journey it took to get to you and why that’s important.
It’s been one of the more difficult crop years in Burundi for coffee. Long–term partnerships and investments in origin are crucial to the long-term success of the coffee industry in the country. Our partners in Burundi – Greenco, Bugestal and the Kahawatu Foundation – have been working closely with farmers to improve crop yields and harvesting techniques to ensure that the highest quality coffees reach you. Greenco and Bugestal operate several washing stations throughout the coffee producing regions in Burundi and their efforts at improving sorting and processing methods have vastly raised the level of quality of coffee coming from Burundi. We’re so excited to share our offerings this year, which are, reports Carlos Bobillo Barbeito, Managing Director at Greenco & Bugestal in Burundi, even better than last year.
Understanding a Colonial Past
Before we explore our current offerings, let’s take jaunt through the past to help us better understand the current state of coffee production in Burundi. Coffee was established in Burundi during the 1930 & 40s by the Belgian colonial government, who officially controlled the Belgian Congo from 1908 to 1960 and the twin territory of Ruanda-Urundi from 1922 to independence in 1962.
The Belgian government made coffee growing mandatory during their rule. When the Belgian government withdrew, many stopped tending their trees because it was no longer compulsory and coffee was seen as a symbol of colonial oppression. However, many also saw the economic advantages of continuing to grow coffee and the industry quickly became important to Burundi’s national economy.
The coffee industry in Burundi remained in the public sector until the start of the 21st century when the government slowly began privatising some parts of the coffee chain. As a result of this relatively recent change, there are very few foreign companies involved in Burundi’s coffee sector.
Today, Burundi’s coffee industry is fueled by the 600,000 smallholders, which translates to around 5 million people with their families. To put this number in perspective, consider that the entire population of Burundi is only a little under 11 million people: smallholder coffee producers and their families comprise almost half of the total population. On top of this, coffee represents nowadays over 80% of Burundi´s exports! As Bobillo says “The country lives off coffee; everyone has someone who lives off coffee… It’s the backbone of the economy.”
Despite the ubiquity of coffee growing in Burundi, each smallholder producer yields a relatively small harvest. The average smallholder has approximately 250 trees, normally in their backyards. Each tree yields an average of 1.5 kilos of cherry, so the average producer only sells around 200-300 kilos of cherry annually. The small size of yield is compounded by the fact that as land is passed on to the next generation, coffee holdings get smaller and smaller. Coffee is “a survival crop,” Bobillo says. However, unless some key changes are made in the coffee growing sector, this survival may be tenuous.
Change is on the horizon. Our partners on the ground, Greenco and Bugestal, are making waves in the industry on both coffee quality and farmer livelihoods.
Writing a Better Future
Quality-wise, Greenco and Bugestal are working holistically from seed-to-bean to increase yields and quality. All coffee trees in Burundi are Red Bourbon, which is tightly controlled by the government for reasons of quality. Because of the increasingly small size of coffee plantings, aging rootstock is a very big issue in Burundi. Many farmers have trees that are over 50 years old, but with small plots to farm, it is difficult to justify taking trees entirely out of product for the 3-4 years it will take new plantings to begin to yield. In order to encourage farmers to renovate their plantings, Greenco and Bugestal purchase seeds from the Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Burundi (ISABU), establishes nurseries and sells the seedlings to farmers at or below cost.
Both Bugestal and Greenco know that even small distances can be time consuming and expensive to travel for smallholder farmers, and they know that receiving cherry immediately after harvest is crucial to quality. Therefore, smallholders can bring their cherries either directly to a central washing station (CWS) or to one of the 10-15 collection sites surrounding each CWS. Farmers are paid the same for their quality cherry regardless of to which site they bring their cherries. In this way, farmers are not disadvantaged due to their location, and they do not have to bear the time and cost of transport to CWS’s.
Quality assurance begins as soon as farmers deliver their cherry. All cherry is floated in small buckets as a first step to check its quality. Greenco and Bugestal still purchase floaters (damaged, underripe, etc.) but immediately separates the two qualities and only markets floaters as B-quality cherry. After floating, the higher quality cherry is sorted again by hand to remove all damaged, underripe and overripe cherries.
After sorting, cherry is de-pulped within 6 hours of delivery. During pulping, cherry is separated into high- and low-grade by density on a McKinnon 3-disc pulper outfitted with an additional separation disk. The coffee is then fermented for 10-12 hours depending on ambient temperature. Trained agronomists check the beans by hand regularly to ensure fermentation is halted at the perfect time.
After fermentation is completed, coffee is run through washing and grading canals. As the beans flow through, wooden bars that are laid across the canal prevent beans of specific densities from passing through. These bars are spaced across the channel. While the first blockade stops the most-dense beans, the next is arranged to stop the second most-dense beans and so on. In total, the channel separates beans into five grades according to density.
The beans are then transported to the drying tables where they will dry slowly for 2-3 weeks. Pickers go over the drying beans for damaged or defective beans that may have been missed in previous quality checks. The beans are covered with tarps during periods of rain, the hottest part of the day and at night. On the table, the beans are dried to 11.5%.
Once dry, the parchment coffee is then bagged and taken to the warehouse. Greenco and Bugestal’s team of expert cuppers assess every lot (which are separated by station, day and quality) at the lab. The traceability of the station, day and quality is maintained throughout the entire process.
Before shipment, coffee is sent to Budeca, Burundi’s largest dry mill. The coffee is milled and then hand sorted by a team of hand-pickers who look closely at every single bean to ensure zero defects. It takes a team of two hand-pickers a full day to look over a single bag. UV lighting is also used on the beans to check bacterial activity. This allows pickers to remove the beans that already show bacterial activity (which provokes deterioration of the coffee), increasing the shelf life of the beans. The result is a coffee that fades more slowly, which is particularly important for a coffee grown in a landlocked country such as Burundi, as transit time from origin to buyer is usually longer.
Bobillo says, “If you do things right, it has a huge impact in this country.” Greenco and Bugestal ensure quality in their product, but just as importantly, they are also contributing to general livelihoods in Burundi.
Budeca Dry Mill demonstrates the scale of this impact. The mill produces an average of 300 containers of 320 bags per year. Budeca is located in Burundi’s new capital city, Gitega, with a population of around 30,000 people. Since there are approximately 3,000 people working at the mill, mostly as hand pickers, this means that Budeca employs nearly 10% of the total population in Gitega for at least half the year (during the milling season). The same is true in the provinces of Ngozi and Kayanza, where Greenco and Bugestal are the first employers in the region during the coffee harvest season. This has an incalculable impact on a country like Burundi, with unemployment rates above 50%, especially in rural areas and among young people.
In addition to their stringent quality standards, another way Greenco and Bugestal are improving quality and livelihoods is through education for farmers, with support from the Kahawatu Foundation. Two agronomists are stationed at every CWS and provide trainings each year to all the farmers. They provide information about the cycles of coffee trees, the importance or pruning and replanting and how to optimise a coffee farm. They also provide valuable resources and lessons on managing finances.
Our partners are also in the field, directly impacting farmers’ bottom line. “It has been a bad year here,” says Bobillo. Due to the cyclical nature of coffee in Burundi, “you have one very good year and one very bad year. This is due mostly to the trees being very old. They are very tired,” he explained. Production this year was only 30% the size of last year’s harvest. But no one is giving up. Instead, they’ve turned their attention to optimising the production of specialty coffee in order to get better prices for smaller lots of higher quality.
The Kahawatu Foundation, another partner in the region, works with farmers on both improving agricultural techniques and strengthening programs that work to increase equality and raise livelihoods in coffee-growing communities. Justin Archer, Chief operating officer in East Africa and sustainability manager for Sucafina, says that, “[Kahawatu Foundation’s] programs do demonstrate that you can double the yields of an inefficient farmer within a year if the farmer implements what they’re taught. And they can probably triple or increase yields by five times over the next three to five years if they follow through on it.”
The Kahawatu Foundation’s programs range from agronomist-led trainings for coffee farmers to teaching financial literacy, facilitating gender equality in communities through community-driven programs such as supporting savings and loans group and women-led cooperatives to helping farmers prepare for impending changes caused by climate change. In addition to the above, some of its specific programmes, such as the famous “Goat & Pig Project” have also had an important echo in the country.
The Best Coffee You’ve Never Tasted
Another important aspect of increasing prices for Burundian coffees is expanding consumer interest through marketing. “The coffee is exceptional,” Bobillo says, “But, in many countries, most people don’t even know Burundi is a country.” Marketing gives visibility, Bobillo explains, and that increased interest will translate into higher prices for the great quality coffee already being produced in Burundi. “We have the product. Now we need to sell it,” Bobillo says.
Burundi could not sell its coffee without amazing buyers like you. Check out our incoming coffees and cupping notes below and don’t hesitate to get in touch to place an order. On the fence? We’re happy to chat about how these incredible coffees can fit into your coffee program and to send samples.