Burundi Coffee in Permanent Crisis

Burundi is in trouble, always: Uncertain harvests, poverty, bad policy, and a poor international reputation a permanent crisis cycle.

That’s not new, as there always seems to be economic or political crisis here. From within the nation and without, there is a kind of resignation about this. As I write this now though, I see the current coffee harvest (2019-2020) will be very difficult.

The crop is very small. In some stations it is 30 – 40% less coffee. But I visited a couple stations that were 70 – 80% less coffee coming in than last year. This means less money to farmers, in a land where trees already have the lowest yield of  Kgs cherry per tree, often under 2 Lbs.

This means less money for the wage laborers who come to stations for jobs hand sorting coffee. This means less foreign currency coming into the country, less to apply to health programs and education. Coffee is the largest cash crop here, and the lack of volume will hurt badly.

May is a good time to visit Burundi, to see coffee still in production and to do some cupping of the lots from early harvest, to get a sense of potential quality.

This happens at a time when American funding and investment  for some programs is being reduced under the current US administration. The ones who hurt the most are farmers. They do grow subsistence crops and other agriculture they can trade locally. Thankfully those crops seem okay this year, and there is food. But cash is needed to maintain homes and roofs, buy livestock as a source of milk, meat and manure, pay school fees for their children.

It’s difficult to travel in a beautiful place, connecting with people over the coffee harvest, and know that so much more needs to be done here. Yes, pay better for coffee. And yes we do. But it takes government and domestic and international partners to make concerted change. This presentation is pretty shallow in some regards but we will be presenting thoughts on Burundi in the context of the global market of coffee in a discussion next week, and will make it available on our youtube too.

I have this thing for hand-painted business signs and Burundi is one of the best! No signs are exactly the same, and they show skill and personality of the artist and proprietor.

One thing I don’t discuss here, or anywhere, to the extent it should be stated: Burundi coffee can be wonderful. Wet-processed coffees are world class, balanced, bright, clean, sweet, complex. These are the coffees I take home on the weekend.

They are a perfect coffee to focus on when the Centrals, like Guatemala, are getting long in the tooth, since the season runs counter to Central America. They should be celebrated and valued on cup quality beyond where they are currently, which only makes the disparity between price, production, and value more extreme…  -Thompson May 2019

Celestin Ntahiraja is manager of Yandaro coffee washing station in Kayanza. The big news in Burundi this year is a very small crop, following last year’s sizable harvest. In the background you can see empty drying beds.
We arrive at Kibingo, another station we bought last year, at night. Cherry is coming in and being sorted buy farmers, but there is very little. Kibingo is down nearly 75% in production!
We travel to Muyinga sector, another area about an hour from Ngozi. They say the harvest is much better in this zone, but still down from last year. The impact spreads to all, not just station owners and farmers, but the “casual laborers” who are paid a wage to sort cherries. Low crop means less work,
Yes goats mean brochette to many in Burundi. But they also produce much needed organic fertilizer with their waste. This year Greenco gave out goats and pigs as bonus to farmers, with a signed agreement they would not be eaten: they are only a source for composting material, but can also be bred and sold by farmers for another income.
I gasped at the size of this sucker, well over 12 inches, more like 24″ when it was extended. A very small type is used for composting in coffee areas, California Redworm. With rains I think this deep-dweller was driven to the surface.
Why not? Coming back from Muyinga to Ngozi to cup the early samples, another nice business sign.
Like Rwanda, the terrain of Burundi is lush green hills and valleys, a very lovely place to visit.
With the big harvest of the previous year, and the low global market price, leftover stocks have been sitting in origins like Burundi. This is again, exacerbated by the low global price. This coffee will be sold at a negative differential, less than the global price, which will hurt the coop warehouse where I took this photo.
On the way to the area around Bujumbura, some non-coffee photos, like these amusing little fellas.
The language in Burundi is Kirundi, sharing a structure with Kenya-Rwanda across the border. I speak only a few words 🙁
In Bujumbura, Dan and I stopped at a small dressmaking shop and asked to see the work space. They can make any dress pictured on the wall, same day, in a few hours. I told them next time… Mom? Want a dress?
There is no doubt you can get anything fixed or rebuilt in the capital of Bujumbura. Later, Dan and I went to the local market, where nothing is wasted, every bolt, every compressor, every scrap of metal is repurposed.
We used to buy a coffee from this sector, called Mutambu, and I was there to visit an inspiring station called Migoti. This is Mutambu town, where I can recall an evening beer and some kinda crazy dancing going on last time I was here a couple years ago.
We stopped to see some trees of Phillipe and Miriam his wife. He has about 500 trees, making him a sizable farmer. But the amount of cherry on the trees this year is shockingly low, despite a huge effort he makes to fertilize and care for his plants.
7403- Is start of migoti station. This is migoti colline. 7417 is the plant I would like to grow with being seeds. 4 colline are migoti, rugembe, murambi and masenga. Rugembe is maybe a bit lower and hotter in parts but top is high. Masenga has greater range in altitudes. MNsenga and murambi have highest altitudes.
All coffee needs to be sold, and even a good station like this produces off grade coffee from the floater beans and under-ripe cherry. It all gets sorted by hand.
They do skin drying in shade, and later take it out to the sun, Bith shade drying and sun drying are on double tier beds at this station, partly due to the steep terrain and lack of space.
We stopped for lunch at the invitation of Timothy Born, a director for USAID in the country and a home roaster! And when not in Burundi, a Sweet Maria’s customer. The coffee was roasting in a round pan with a wood spoon for agitation and was really good! It didnt hurt that it was a 90+ lot from last years Cup of Excellence.

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