The Inevitable Chaos that is Burundi Coffee Buying


I'm supposed to be writing an article about my recent experiences travelling in Colombia. It was my first time travelling there (as well as in Brazil, where I later went) and having only experienced being in some of East Africa as a coffee buyer, these trips illuminated so much for me. There are many exciting developments taking place within the specialty coffee communities in both countries and learning some of the historical backgrounds behind the current innovations I was introduced to provided some much needed nuance to my perspective on the world of specialty coffee and the major roles Colombia and Brazil both play.

As is so often the case, events taking place here and now end up occupying the forefront of a place's work flow to the expense of other equally important and pressing matters. In the case of importing coffee, and taking into account the various harvest seasons CCS' schedule revolves around, Burundi should already be out of the major part of the current workflow because the coffee should have landed in our warehouse during the summertime and roasters should be well into their inventories of the current harvest. Although there are always delay-inducing minutiae that creep into every shipment from every origin, Burundi is one of those origins where things are predictably unpredictable and where one can reliably expect to have their patience tested day-after-day (I wish that were an exaggeration) during the export process.

When one chooses to import Burundian coffees, they're signing up to ride a logistical, and at least for me, emotional rollercoaster. This year the country is experiencing the culmination of a political storm that has been brewing since 2005 when the latest in a series of civil wars the country has endured, ended. Turmoil is depressingly cyclical in this country and this year it came via the heavily disputed presidential election. When working with a country that is so complicated and has so much going against it, it can be difficult not to become numb to the constant flow of shocking news that comes from partners living and breathing all that chaos.

As an importer whose main goal is to provide roasters with the very best on offer from the beautiful array of stellar coffees out there, working with Burundi has sometimes felt like an inconceivable origin to take on. To be clear, the biggest reason Collaborative Coffee Source started working in Burundi is because we came across coffees that couldn't be ignored. But throughout our short history of working there, plenty of situations have arisen where deciding to continue working in Burundi has been a source of reappraisal within the team.

All of the above is a prelude to the current situation we are faced with in trying to move our first container from Burundi to Antwerp this year. Hopefully the following will help our roasting friends understand how truly complex importing coffee can be and how the act of purchasing coffee can clearly be life altering for producers. For simplicity's sake, I'll narrate the story of this container by way of a timeline.

July 2015: Final cuppings and screenings of microlots making up the proposed container are completed and negotiations on contracts commence.

The presidential election is completed and protests, which have been occurring since late-winter, escalate into riots after the results are announced. Both of CCS' partnering exporters flee the country with their families, along with tens of thousands of other Burundians.

August 2015: Milling, packaging and preparations of export documents begin and are expected to be completed by month's end.

Our exporters travel in and out of the country to oversee the process.

September 2015: Export document preparation continues amidst continued political turmoil and violence. The shipment is delayed weekly as ARFIC's (Burundi's national coffee board) office shuts down and the directors in charge of signing and stamping export documents scatter throughout the country and our exporting partners are charged with locating them. One of the two exporters reports travelling to nine different people, in order to obtain 29 signatures and stamps for our microlots.

October 2015: As of October 20th (today), we find ourselves awaiting ONE last signature for one of the 13 microlots we're shipping in this container. We need to get the container out of the dry mill and out to Dar es Salaam port for departure to Antwerp. We were assured at the end of last week that all the necessary paperwork was completed and in order...this proved to be illusory, as we experience time and again...

The conflict in Bujumbura (Burundi's capital) continues and moves too close for comfort as one of the exporter's has his home assailed by bullets. He chooses not to publicize this, perhaps because it does not change the fact that his family and their cherry producing partners simply need to see shipments move ahead and don't see the point in inviting sympathy as it doesn't change reality in any way. These are my speculations, anyway.

In the meantime, Tanzania has a presidential election coming up on Sunday and yesterday the Dar es Salaam port authority issued us warnings about potential strife that may affect the reception of our container. We debated internally, with our exporters, with our logistics partner, about the pros and cons of moving now or waiting. We ended up choosing to move ahead with shipment today, only to learn that the paperwork was in fact, not in order.

Hence my writing of this post now. Upon commiserating about all of this with a colleague and struggling with all the practical and emotional complexity this situation poses, we come to the conclusion that this story needs to be shared in the hopes that in the sharing, more people might develop the appreciation for all the efforts and struggle that goes into producing the beautiful coffee that this container holds. Over the past weeks, our team has been continually stunned by the quality we're tasting from these microlots. It's led to an increasingly popular refrain around here that Burundi is becoming "the new Kenya".

Sincerely hope you all agree when the gems making up this shipment finally land in your roasteries.