Back from the Road: Burundi, February 20104-8-10
Maybe it is just my sheer love for goat brochette, or maybe it is the amazing passion fruit, but when I arrived in Burundi it felt like my home away from home. It was also very good to be back after a somewhat-successful year of selecting some amazing coffees. (I mean have you tasted Kiryama yet?) Even though the coffees taste great right now, the work for great coffee is constant and there never seems to be a down moment. So, now is the time of year to go and collaborate with our producer partners and get ready for the harvest that will start this spring.
After spending a night in the town of Kayanza, my first stop was at a coffee washing station called Buziraguhindwa (BOOZ-e-ra-GOO-hind-wa). Buziraguhindwa actually means "never retreat when facing a problem" and was named for famous tribal warriors who inhabited the hillside hundreds of years ago. One of the main reasons Buziraguhindwa was the first place we wanted to go was because it is being run by a gentleman named Cassien Nibaruta. Cassien was the production manager for a coffee we carried just a few months ago called Teka, and when I heard that he has going to be the manager of Buziraguhindwa, I had to go see his new project! The other unique thing about Buziraguhindwa, which made it even more intriguing, is that Buziraguhindwa isn’t finished being built yet.
When I arrived at the washing station with Cassien, the place was swirling with activity. Dozens of people were assembling drying tables, patching concrete, planting grass, and calibrating equipment. I ask Cassien right away whether or not he was going to be ready for this harvest, to which he merely shrugged off what I asked, and said, “Of course.” With that we started talking about all the things that he put in place for this new washing station.
To name just a few of the really impressive developments: they have built a great water filtration system that will drastically reduce ground pollution and water consumption, without affecting the process style; they built the facilities to handle smaller batches of coffee for better separation and better processing; they reserved a piece of the land for a demonstration plot to teach producers about processing and coffee varietals; to help with the low productivity, they also have a nursery that they will use to give farmers free seedlings to plant; and, potentially the most important improvement is that they have designed a system for paying the farmers drastically faster.
On top of all the improvements that Cassien has put into place, the location is pretty much perfect. It was built in area that has fewer washing stations than other parts of Burundi, which will be good in that farmers will not have to travel as far to turn in their coffee cherry. It also just so happens to be smack-dab in the middle of all the best coffees we have tasted from Burundi. With amazing altitude, an amazing facility, and a great manager, Buzirguhindwa will no doubt produce some of the best coffees in Burundi. With the scouting of this new mill completed, we got back on the road, and made our way to a few of the places I visited back in July 2009.
The next place I stopped by was Kinyovu. Kinyovu was one of the first washing stations that got funding to start improving their facilities a few years ago, and having tasted the coffee the past 2 years, the improvements certainly show. While we were at Kinyovu, I had time to catch up and talk with Jldephonse the president of the Yagikawa Cooperative. (Yagikawa means “speak” coffee.) He was there to talk with Emile Kamwenubusa – of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – and me about an idea to promote cooperatives and farmer associations through coffee lot separation. The idea is that groups of farmers will turn in their cherry together on a specific day, and, if the coffee is of high quality, then that group will be rewarded a premium for their coffee. This concept is pretty revolutionary and could potentially be a way to incentivize farmers to produce better coffee. After the good conversation with Emile and Jldephonse, we had to get going to make our way to Kiryama.
Kiryama was one of the washing stations last year that struck me as having really high potential, and when we were actually able to taste the coffee we were not surprised that it was great. Coming back here was a priority to see if Kiryama was working to improve the facilities that produce the coffee. Upon arriving, I met with Nelchiade Niyonkuru, the washing station manager, and started talking about the plans for Kiryama. While Kiryama has great potential, I will say I was slightly disappointed that no improvements have been made to the washing station since I was last there. While I know the coffee will likely be great again this year, it was a little discouraging. Again at Kiryama, Emile talked about producer association lot separation, and the potential that it could have for the quality. In July, after the coffee is harvested, the goal will be to taste all of the different lots from Kiryama to see what the quality is like and if we are interested in any of coffee. We will have to wait and see. After walking around a little longer and more conversation with Nelchiade, we once again got back on the road to head to the next washing stations.
The fourth washing station we visited is called Gatare. This was another washing station I visited last year, but we did not purchase coffee from. Gatare is really interesting because it is not directly owned by the government, but is owned by the agency that manages the washing stations for the government. To be completely honest, I am not exactly sure how that works, but Kinyovu, Gatare, and – I believe – two other washing stations fall into this category. Like the facilities at Kiryama, not a lot has changed since I was last there in July, so, while the coffee is still very good, it has a lot more potential, as well. This whole stretch in Kayanza – between Kinyovu, Kiryama, and Gatare – always makes me think about the microclimate here. It isn’t a fluke that all of my favorite coffees in the past come from a very small area. After a discussion with the washing station manager, with the sun starting to get lower and lower in the sky, we had to make another quick exit to ensure we made it to Teka, the last washing station to visit for the day.
Teka was one of the standout coffees we bought from the 2009 crop, and I was interested to see what the mill was going to be like since Cassien Niburata was no longer the manger. When I arrived, I was greeted by Bede, the new manager, and he was eager to talk about the coffee for the coming harvest. Last year, there was so little coffee produced all over Burundi that lot separation was not a priority, as they only had a very small amount. This year, though, with the understanding that there will be a lot more coffee, Bede wanted to be on top of what it is going to take to produce the best coffee and keep it separate. For quite a while, we talked about the fermentation methods and which one produced the best results. Which, to be honest, there is still no clear answer. We talked about separation and improvements to the system that he can do. We also talked about some more improvements to facilities that could increases the quality.
Overall, I was really impressed with Bede, and I believe Teka is going to have another great year. Right as I was leaving Teka to head back to Bujumbura, I couldn’t help but notice the people from the community walking around smiling and taking interest in why I was there, which just further cemented why I love coming here so much. The people are just friendly and amazing, and I can tell they just care about the coffee and work they do.
Burundi truly is one of the most under-recognized coffee-producing countries, and the hope is that, with all the work we are putting in and plan to do in the future, the reputation for the coffee and for the country will grow. Over the next few months, we are going to be further planning and waiting to see what these places are capable of. With the promise of lot separation and experimentation really taking hold, I think we are going to see some really impressive lots with the 2010 harvest. For the eager people waiting to see what great things will happen this year, you all will just have to enjoy the 2009 crop and wait until winter to taste the beautiful coffee that will begin being harvested in a few weeks.