Greetings from Bukeye. You may notice “Bukeye” on our coffee bags currently on shelves in NY and Chicago. Bukeye is the main town nearest to the Buhorwa Washing Station, where our coffee is collected in cherry form fresh from the farms. Although Bukeye is a well known region in Burundi for having produced many powerful figures in politics and business, there isn’t much to the town, save for a trading center, large church, and one restaurant and roadside inn, where I sleep, take my meals and have learned to time bathing to the on-and-off whims of Bukeye’s municipal water system. I also discovered here that ripening guavas, when left in one’s room, act as an all natural air freshener against the local aromas which at times waft up from the town’s drainage canals.
Onto coffee. Buhorwa Washing Station is about 45 minutes by foot or 15 minutes by vehicle from Bukeye. The region is marvelous. The dozens of shallow winding valleys, vibrant and verdant hillsides, fruits and other harvests spilling into the markets thanks to the rainy season, and the crisp fresh air make for a nice escape from the buzz of Bujumbura and that local aroma here in Bukeye town.
So what are we doing here this month? We were hoping to observe the start of the harvest and activities of the washing station during production, but the harvest is unseasonably late this year and may not begin for another 2 weeks or so. Not for at least the past 8 years has the harvest started this late (available records I’ve found so far don’t go back further). Our fingers are crossed that we’ll at least be here for the first picking. Quite a bummer, but this is coffee, and so is the life at the mercy of nature and especially the wildly fluctuating calendar of Burundi coffee harvests.
Luckily there is plenty other work to be done. We now take on tasks for which we don’t often have much time on origin trips, for example historical data collection and analysis, and detailed mapping of the “zone” whose inhabitants and small family farms (about 2,400) contribute coffee to the Buhorwa station. We’re about halfway through collecting production data, which must take place both at the washing station as well as the headquarters of the Sogestal (kinda like a large regional cooperative) up in Kayanza. The data is yielding some remarkable findings, which may help us, the Sogestal, and the farmers to better plan for future seasons. Most important in that equation is the farmers, for they are the ones whose incomes drop by 80% when annual harvests drop by 80%. More on that data to follow in an upcoming post. Gonna have to dive deep into Excel for that one.
Mapping of the coffee collection area has been quite the task, and it involves hopping on the back of a motorcycle with a camera, GPS and notepad, and touring every little dirt road and colline, or hill/ridge, of the coffee harvest zone. Each stop takes less than 5 minutes, and involves collection of latitude, longitude and altitude, and noting of landmarks in each direction. Notes and/or corresponding codes are photographed, so that they can be easily tagged to a specific place and the geotag within each photo. While recording these notes, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly 20 children can appear out of a seemingly desolate location and curiously swarm a motorcycle and GPS-wielding foreigner (read: white person).
There are 19 collines in the Buhorwa zone, so that’s a lot of ridge roads and valleys in between. The ridges – and the highest points for Buhorwa’s coffee – are at an altitude of around 1850-1900m, while the valleys (including the washing station) are around 1750-1800m. There are higher ridges around, however coffee trees cannot grow past roughly 1900m here. Hardier trees grow above 1900m, but for our purposes 1900m is our “tree line” (having recently completed some big hikes, it’s nice not to have to pass the tree line!)
Rains have been heavy in recent weeks, yielding abundant harvests and pushing the coffee cherries further towards ripeness, although many sections of road have eroded or fallen victim to small landslides from above. No tractors around here, so the local councils have hired armies of local residents, who dot the roads with hoes and wheelbarrows. What a backhoe or tractor could fix in 30 minutes takes a day with the limited tools at hand.
As soon as we make some sense of all the geographical data, we’ll post it online as a complete regional map (most likely through Google Maps and Google Earth), not only for transparency and the benefit of C2C (in understanding the varied terroir and micro-regions of the coffee we purchase), but also for the washing station and our local partners, who as of yet don’t have much in the way of correlated geographical data to assist them in planning, training and quality improvement. In addition, sometime in the next month or so we will publish detailed records of farmer organization and payments so that you – our customers – can better understand what your purchases mean to those at the other end of your coffee’s supply chain. This, we hope, is transparency at its finest.
Keep checking this blog regularly, as there is LOTS more to come. As always, check out the trip photo stream here, and make sure to look at the stream’s map function to see exactly where we are in Burundi, and soon in Uganda. We are trying to update the photos as much as slow internet connections permit.
For the best look at Burundi coffee, make sure to sign up for a C2C coffee classgoing on this month! They Try some Burundi Buhorwa up close and personal. If I wasn’t over here I’d be there pulling shots with ya!