Burundi is a tiny country in the heart of Africa and extends almost 30 miles in one direction and about 30 miles the other way. The land is mountainous and the characteristic hills roll, resembling a beautiful quilt. With the exception of a few national parks, each square meter of land is in use. Burundi shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo along the Tanganyika lake in the west, Tanzania is neighbour east and to the south, Rwanda borders north. Once upon a time, all this was one kingdom. These days, the countries represent the “new” promising coffee countries in East Africa.
With 200 people per square kilometer, Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This puts great pressure on land resources, which can hardly be called virgin forest after all the clear-cutting done for firewood and for the grazing of cattle. All this has amounted to, literally, eaten up vegetation. The country is rich in fruits, but the population is impoverished. Of a population of 9.8 million, over 600,000 families earn their livelihoods from coffee cultivation. Coffee is the cash crop. An average coffee farm is in reality a garden with 2-300 coffee bushes, yielding a harvest of about 2-4 bags of green coffee per year. Whether the market pays $3 or $6 per pound for green coffee, matters a great deal, both for a family’s living conditions and the country’s economy as a whole. Burundi is first and foremost an agricultural country, and coffee and tea exports, together, represent 90% of the country’s export income.
Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962, but ethnic conflicts that followed the genocide in 1993 (following the course of the genocide in Rwanda) and rebellion have impoverished the people in every sense. In 2009, the country signed a ceasefire between the government and rebels. The Tutsi ethnic group, a minority of the population, has dominated the coffee trade in Burundi. Hutus, the ethnic group representing the vast majority of the population, have been sitting in government over the last few years and have been working to re-build the country. The incoming generation recognize that ethnic conflicts are politically created; these are not conflicts based on race nor are they legal in nature. Tutsis and Hutus have more in common than differences. Nevertheless, Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries, life expectancy is an average of 46 years, half the population is under 15, and half the population over 15 cannot read and write.
Gross domestic product is about $175 USD per capita and the coffee sector, already an essential part of the culture and economy, is also proving to be a cornerstone in the building of a more prosperous future.
Politicians at all levels and many organizations, including aid agencies and the World Bank, have worked actively for Burundi to become a producer of specialty coffee. The highlands, climatic conditions, soil quality and plant material go a long way, to this end. Historically Burundi produces OK coffee, but the market has not appreciated its potential. There are three basic factors that always need to be addressed in order to produce specialty coffee: processing techniques must be fine-tuned, the infrastructure and logistics of moving coffee must be in place, and the market must be established and informed.
The former government sector that processes coffee cherries in Burundi, Coffee Washing Stations (CWS), has, over the last few years, been privatized. Of the 175 CWSes, over a third are held by private companies. According to local sources, people in Burundi are more enterprising than in neighbouring countries. The coffee sector, with organizations such as the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), has taken over the challenges of processing, logistics and marketing. ACE, owner and organizer of the Cup of Excellence program, seeks to find the areas of the country that demonstrably produce the best coffee. The first step is to train a squad of qualified coffee tasters who can evaluate what the country actually has to offer. This work started four years ago, partly with the support of the agriculture department at the University of Michigan in the US. Paul Songer, head judge for CoE Burundi this year, studied sensory perception at UC Davis and helped educate a dozen proud coffee tasters. These cuppers received over 300 coffee samples from processing stations around the country this year. Of these, 150 were found worthy of sensory evaluation at the national jury level and finally, 60 of the best coffee were selected for evaluation by the international jury.
During the first five days of competition we tasted the submissions in three sections. After the final day, only 17 lots were left, all scoring over 85 points, and two lots having scored over 90 points. I visited the two areas where winning coffees come from and will, in the following post, further describe the country, articulate more on how the coffee trade operates in Burundi and also introduce the people behind these operations. The coffee industry, after all, is a people-centered industry.