Burundi has only been producing coffee since the 1930s. It is a country shattered both by civil conflict and the widespread perception of the potato defect in specialty coffee. In the 1930s, coffee came to Burundi during colonial rule and has been hot-potatoeing from being publicly owned in 1933, private in 1962 after independence, public again in 1972, and finally private from 1991.
Concurrent with these swings is the civil conflict that has also been detrimental to Burundi’s coffee production and value.
There are significant barriers in producing specialty coffee in Burundi, including geographic location, bureaucracy and the widespread perception of the potato defect.
Burundi is a land locked country located within East Africa (borders Rwanda to the North, Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west). This is challenging because it is hard to maintain the coffee quality when transporting coffee from processing stations to buyers.
The potato defect (alongside Rwanda) is also present in Burundi. In essence, this is where; the Antestia bug infects coffee berries by drilling a small hole into the skin of the coffee of the coffee fruit. So that when the coffee is roasted, beans taste like a raw potato. This has the potential to ruin an entire bag of coffee, and as such has the effect of deterring buyers from buying Burundi coffee.
As a note, Burundi officially and unofficially has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world, with 90% of the population relying on subsistence and agriculture. This seems outstanding but as Ben and Kristy Carlson (founders of the Long Mile Coffee Project) both note, “choosing to only view it with that perspective ignores the incredible potential latent in its hills given the fertility of Burundian soil and the unique micro-climates of each colline (hill).”
LONG MILES COFFEE PROJECT
Long Miles Coffee Project is a coffee producer in Burundi, and is run by a small American family. They were not always producers, but rather a family with a dream. They dreamed of facilitating direct and meaningful relationships between coffee roasters and coffee growers by producing great coffee and telling the story of the farmers who grow it. However, after some time sourcing coffee in Burundi, they realised the only way they could live their dream, consistently deliver high quality coffee, and control the price their farmers were being paid was to build a washing station. With the help of friends and devoted blog readers, they were able to sell their first harvest of coffee before it even hit the drying tables. They are now a vital part of the community.
I was able to briefly chat to founder Kristy Carlson, about the Long Miles Coffee Project.
Can you tell me some of the highs, and lows of coffee production?
Our highs definitely revolve around being a part of the two communities that we have washing stations in, Kayanza and Bukeye. We’ve seen significant positive changes in some of the lives of the farmers we work with, and that’s worth more than anything money can buy. We also love running pilot projects, testing different theories in increased coffee quality against each other. We are passionate about producing the highest quality coffee that we can. Teaching farmers about best farming practices is a big part of this. In Bukeye, its a frequent sight to see our agronomist Epaphrus standing at the selection tables showing a farmer how different coffee cherries measure on the Brix meter.
Burundi is one of the most challenging countries in the world to do business from, so that is an obvious low. It is a struggle to export coffee from Burundi, there are 29 signatures needed on countless different documents and often those signatures are much harder to obtain than people might imagine. There are also numerous challenges that pop up at the washing stations on a daily basis during harvest- from people stealing coffee off of our drying tables to our generator and water pump breaking down.
The Potato effect, how can it be combated?
We are currently working with District Roasters (districtroasters.com) on a Coffee Scouts Program. This is where we get unemployed youth and train them to find the potato bug. These youth are trained in aspects of basic agronomy and data recording skills. When the scouts spot the bug, they use an inexpensive and organic pesticide (Pyrethrum) to target the bug. Shortly, after they fall off the coffee tree and the scouts collect them for research. Currently, there are 14 coffee scouts who are lead by agronomist Epapharus. These scouts each have 30 “farmer friends” who they regularly visit, and who they have personally committed to training to use better farming practises, from capturing the bugs, mulching, pruning and fertilizing.
The story behind the cup, would you be able to give me an example of a farmer’s story?
Featured in my Long Miles Coffee Project blog, is that of Espéciose. The impacts of the war continue to pulse it’s reaching veins through lives and lands long after guns stop ringing, what this means for Espéciose is that she is the sole provider for her 6 children. Her husband was killed in the Burundian civil war that ended in 2006 and she has been farming coffee along ever since. Espéciose farms multiple crops in order to feed her family and lives 45 minutes walk away from Long Miles Bukeye washing station. She carries her ripe red cherries in bags set atop the heads of herself and her children. She has never tasted the coffee she works so hard to grow, because it’s too precious to drink.
Espéciose’s story may sound a little bleak to you, but it’s so much more than that – it is a story of reliance and survival. She has made a way for herself in a land many would say survival is next to impossible. A community leader, a mother and a farmer, she is much more than the labels of widow and poverty stricken, although she is those things too. Her challenges are evident, and so is her inspiration and resilience.
As Long Miles Coffee Project reach expands they are searching for ways to improve the lives of widows, Espéciose included. If you have any ideas, resources to assist – get in contact with Kristy.