I was in Burundi in June to cup the freshly harvested coffees. Even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Burundi, particularly in the Kayanza province (of increasing fame via Cup of Excellence), this was my first time travelling to the country as a coffee buyer. I conducted some field research there in 2012 as a master student and now during this recent trip, began to recognize a lot of background reasons—themes I found in my master’s thesis—behind the challenges specialty buyers face there.
Burundi’s economy is heavily reliant on coffee. Coffee is Burundi’s biggest export revenue earner, making up as high as 80% of earnings. There are 600 000 families, close to 40% of the population, involved in the coffee subsector. Hilly and mountainous, Burundi boasts an ideal agroecology for coffee cultivation: it has great soils, very high elevations in some coffee growing regions (up to 2000 masl) and ideal climates. On top of that, it has great infrastructure: the World Bank and other partners invested heavily during the 1970s and built 133 washing stations (wet mills) that are better equipped and organized than the ones in neighbouring Rwanda, which has been more successful so far in transitioning into specialty coffee production. Many factors have “held back” Burundi’s move into specialty coffee including a long and very slowly diminishing government presence in the coffee sector. Unlike in more successful examples of government intervention in coffee production (e.g. some of the Central American origin countries), Burundi’s government has a mismanaged and bureaucratic national coffee board (ARFIC, previously OCIBU) and for most of the last 30 years, employees hired by OCIBU were running all of the countries’ washing stations. For more background, see previous posts as well as reports such as this one from USAID.
My thesis question was concerned with how direct trade affects the livelihoods of Burundian coffee growers. I met with people involved in all different aspects of coffee production: farmers/cherry growers, washing station managers/owners, government officials in charge of legislating the coffee sector, cooperative presidents, etc., and heard time and time again, the following:
- Burundian coffee growers feel powerless to influence and feel quite removed from coffee production past the growing and delivering of their cherries to washing stations. This results in much frustration and feelings of being “taken advantage of” in relation to the prices they receive for their cherries;
- Direct trade is not currently possible at farm level largely due to the realities that:
- Each farmer’s annual yield is very small, given that they own no more than 250 trees on approximately 0.4 hectares of land and have very poor yields per tree (about 0.5 kg of cherries per tree in comparison to 1 kg in Kenya, for example);
- The coffee sector is not structured and organized to allow for it. Although the coffee sector has been undergoing liberalization and privatization since the end of the 1990s civil war, progress has been very slow and the coffee sector continues to be disorganized and bureaucratic. Even at the washing station/wet mill level, operators find it quite challenging to work directly with buyers;
- Farmers don’t currently know what happens with their cherries past the delivery to the washing station, with the result that it is difficult for them to work with buyers. In addition to the language barrier (the main language in Burundi is Kirundi), farmers are also not “speaking the same language” practically with the buyers. Growers and buyers do not have the same level of knowledge about the entire production/supply chain with the advantage heavily in the buyer’s favour.
- Farmers feel empowered when they are given the opportunity to meet with international coffee professionals, including buyers and fellow coffee farmers from other countries. When they are able to speak with coffee people outside of Burundi, it provides a broader picture of how coffee production “works” and leads to previously uncontemplated questions and thoughts about how Burundi’s own coffee production is structured.
Craft Coffee Suppliers
The mindset of the supplier is just as, or perhaps even more important than the soil and growing conditions, processing methods, varietals being grown, altitude of the farm, etc. One of the biggest distinctions between specialty coffee and commodity coffee is the crafted nature of specialty. Craftsmanship in coffee doesn’t begin at the roaster; it begins (hopefully) at the farm with the person cultivating and overseeing the work on the land and in the tending of the coffee plants. It then extends to the washing station/wet mill, beginning with cherry reception and only accepting fully mature cherries, then to pulping, drying, etc. Because of a myriad of reasons, some of which are discussed here (as above), but many that are not, a Burundian coffee supplier from a buyer's perspective, is the washing station.
My use of the word craftsmanship comprises at least four things: ambition, knowledge, skill and execution. A coffee supplier that expresses all of the above makes the job of buying coffee very easy. Following that, it is much easier to pay a commensurate price for coffee coming from this kind of person.
There’s debate about whether farmers can afford to care about quality. Some argue that there is currently not enough incentive for farmers to spend the time and resources to improve quality. These articles are discussing a Central American and more of a farm-level perspective, but I would imagine their arguments extend to washing stations, which largely comprise coffee suppliers in East Africa, since this is where the majority of "direct trade" coffee sales are made. I haven’t yet met a coffee professional who hasn’t agreed that prices are too low for great quality coffee. At CCS, we have the luxury of working with roasters who understand that quality coffee costs and for the most part, we are working with suppliers (now speaking in more of a global sense: growers, washing stations, exporters) who know how much it costs to produce exceptional quality at every stage of production and can thus outline why they’re asking the prices they’re asking for. These types of suppliers generally:
- use inputs that are right for the soils in their particular micro region
- prune coffee plants regularly and replants when necessary
- hires skilled pickers who identify and pick only the ripest cherries and pay them a commensurate wage
- either process and dry their own cherries using good facilities they themselves have invested in, or work with wet mills/washing stations that have great facilities and know-how
Coffee suppliers who are ambitious will invest to produce quality coffee and they will then demand to be paid accordingly.
Craft Coffee in Burundi?
The reality is different on a Burundian farm than it is on the Central American farms we work with. Farmers are working with a lot less land and and also have to be geographically lucky enough to be close to a washing station that invests in and produces quality coffee. Sometimes, and this is not just specific to Burundi, you come across a coffee that is exceptional and when you ask the supplier how it came to be great, they don’t know how to answer because the truth is, they haven’t used a specific strategy to make that coffee great. Traditions for how to make "good coffee" have simply been followed. In these cases, other factors influence quality: a particularly good harvest due to ideal climactic conditions, agroecology, etc. This is pretty close to reality with much of Burundi’s best coffee: all the right conditions and then good (increasingly better) processing comes together to provide great coffee.
At the moment, selective cherry picking doesn’t happen anywhere and on top of that, many washing stations accept un/over ripe cherries and focus their care and attention on processing. Some do a great job processing (e.g. multiple COE winner and third time CCS supplier, Masha washing station) and this is mostly why great lots can be found. Some also have very skilled cuppers on their team who choose which day lots to blend to create great lots. So rather than us as buyers choosing the best day lots as we do elsewhere, we’re choosing the best blended lots.
It's clear that suppliers (i.e. washing stations) are eager to provide great coffee. It's a matter of pride, as well as getting a good price. Right now it's necessary to focus at the washing station level as a buyer. I believe that over time, once there has been a more concrete shift at the washing station-level towards crafted coffee, that the farms will also begin to care about quality. I'm optimistic that we have started to build some great partnerships with ambitious and quality-driven suppliers. But it's also clear that it will take some time before this ambition turns into concrete actions that will lead to identifiably great coffee.