Days 4-5 – Bujumbura, Ngozi and Kayanza, Burundi
Let’s start off by saying that Burundi is a coffee buyer’s dream. I’ll explain later, so let me first write a bit about where I am.
I arrived in the capital, Bujumbura at about 1am from Entebbe, Uganda, after a 3 hour layover at one of the world’s most uncomfortable airports, Nairobi. Driving to my hotel from the airport, I was struck by the calmness of the city. Sure, it was 1am, but having visited other East African capitals such as Entebbe/Kampala, Kigali and Nairobi, I was surprised by the lack of even late night truckers, your odd pedestrian or two, or a candle burning at a food or cigarette stall. The city is quintessentially old school, with a fantastic architectural combination of colonial-period art deco and independence-period 1960’s funk. The airport feels like a spaceship and a bank looks like it belongs in South Beach.
Up early the next morning, I had a nice cup of Burundi coffee (not sure about the exact origin) at the hotel and a heaping bowl of fresh mango, pineapple banana and passion fruit (a welcome change from bread, rice, bread and rice over the past few days of travelling). Then at the Burundi Agribusiness Project (BAP) offices, staff presented a few of the innovative projects of this USAID program (they are active in coffee, dairy, and horticulture/floriculture).
It seems that they have had much success in the coffee sector, where at 4 pilot washing stations (soon expanding to over a dozen) BAP has managed to convince station managers to separate coffee on even the day lot level. Having come from Uganda, where it is difficult to get the industry to separate the regional harvest on even the “washing station” level, this opportunity in Burundi starts me dreaming. My mind is back in NYC, where I imagine our wholesale restaurant customers’ menus one week featuring “Burundi Washing Station XYZ, harvested and pulped on May 10, 2010,” then the next week reading “Burundi Washing Station XYZ, harvested and pulped on May 14, 2010”…and then a customer asks the barista “did you change your coffee supplier? This coffee tastes so different!” The best part is that there is real potential for this dream to become a reality.
Explaining the structure of coffee production here is really the same as writing why the country is a coffee buyer’s dream (less your standard logistical/export delays). Burundi’s coffee is almost entirely Arabica, with 65%-70% of it passing through the country’s roughly 185 government (120) and privately-owned (65) washing stations. For those of you unfamiliar with coffee processing, a washing station is where just-harvested coffee “cherries” are collected, then pulped, washed and dried (through many many many delicate steps). This focus on washing station coffee (as opposed to unwashed coffee, or washed coffee via hand pulpers plus bags or mobile bins for washing) makes it a lot easier to control quality and experiment with different methods, since machines reduce the level of human error and inconsistency. Even more, washing station managers and small enough processing factories (post washing station hulling, sorting, bagging for export) have agreed to reduce the amount of mixing, resulting in amazing opportunities to purchase lots of coffee purely from one single harvest day, one single drying method (for example, drying coffee in piles instead of spread out flat), single vs. double fermentation, or just one single washing station’s annual harvest. All of these opportunities – even the last – have been hard for us to come by in our previous work in high-volume focused Uganda, so this is a refreshing break. Oh, and the roads are pretty darn good and the country is so small that there are few stations more than 3 hours from Bujumbura (see map at end of this post)! That’s why I love Burundi so far 🙂
As for ownership/management, things are complicated. OCIBU (the government coffee board) is slowly losing importance and control as the industry liberalizes, and some players here have even told me that they expect the organization to fold within the next year or two (or become purely a testing lab or promotion board). Not sure I believe it, but it’s at least important to note. Although many washing stations are government “owned”, all stations are privately “managed.” Not long ago, all stations were government owned and managed by the five “SOGESTALS” (Société de Gestion des Stations de Lavage), which are private organizations that control sets (usually by region) of washing stations and organize export (with some coffee mixed between stations, and some coffee sold as single-station). The government is now trying to sell off these washing stations, and roughly 20 of them have been bought up and are now managed by private companies (for example). This means that the number of stations controlled by SOGESTALs is gradually decreasing. To remain in business, however, many of the SOGESTALs are constructing brand new washing stations, and/or submitting bids for ownership of the government-owned stations that they have been leasing.
The first two days here were quite educational, and we’re succeeding in meeting the actors, learning how the system works (and its risks), and exploring potential new origins (washing stations) for Crop to Cup. Along with Emile and Tharcisse from BAP, I have visited the OCIBU offices and impressive cupping lab, toured washing stations and processing facilities from Bujumbura up to the Rwanda border, met with management from two different SOGESTALs and enjoyed quite a bit of the locally-brewed Amstel. I’m happy to say that – although cupping of samples when the harvest season comes around (April-July) will be the final indicator – there are some fantastic opportunities. It’s one of those places where you know the coffee is naturally top-quality, so at this point it’s a matter of choosing the right partner(s) and station(s) that properly take advantage of the technology already in place.
For validity just look to the North, to Rwanda, a country that has enjoyed – among many economic successes over the past decade – particularly great achievements in the coffee sector. Burundi was once a far larger industry player than Rwanda, and supposedly Rwanda looked to imitate the Burundi model (washing station-focused) instead of the other way around. Unfortunately for Burundi, however, “the crisis” (conflict/rebels/all foreign business fleeing, 1993-2005) didn’t end until just a few years ago and right now is catch-up time. I’m not the first to say this (there are quite a few specialty buyers around here these days), but I expect great things for this country’s coffee industry even in the next two to three years, and we’re excited for Crop to Cup to be a part of the transformation.
Tomorrow I’ll sadly depart from my excellent guide and Burundi coffee expert, Emile (from the BAP project), although I’m excited to meet up with Adrien, from the well known Africa-focused coffee broker, Schluter. I met his colleagues in their Switzerland headquarters a few months back and I’ve been pumped for this meet-up ever since.
Both BAP and Schluter have been gracious enough to show me around this country and provide insight into what the coffee industry has to offer. Without them, I must admit, C2C would be quite lost and surely wasting a lot of time. It is companies and organizations like these two who are making it feasible for specialty coffee buyers to make sense of the industry here and, more importantly, for the country of Burundi and its 800,000 coffee farmers to receive their due recognition on the coffee map.