From the Road: Kenya, June 20106-17-10
Kenya is so interesting. In the United States, we know Kenya mainly for two of its cash crops, coffee and tea, and for its unparalleled wildlife-viewing opportunities (have you seen the lion-versus-buffalo-versus-crocodile video on YouTube?) in the country's network of national parks. Europe increasingly relies on Kenya for other agricultural products, including fruit and cut flowers, and within Africa – particularly East Africa – Kenya is a manufacturing powerhouse.
While this wasn't my first time to Kenya, I had never seen a Kenyan coffee farm or any of the numerous washing stations from which Counter Culture has purchased coffee, and I felt more than a little bit in awe as I headed north from Nairobi to the famous coffee-producing region of Nyeri. It seemed as though I recognized the name of every village we passed through – Kangocho! Gitchathaini! Tegu! – from countless cuppings, and I had to control my urge to take photographs of every road sign. With only a day in Kenya on this trip, I was limited to visiting one farmer cooperative society, and I naturally chose Thiriku, one of the co-ops from which we purchased coffee in 2009. I arrived at the washing station full of excitement and questions, of course! How many growers are in the co-op? What is the average yield per plant? Why does this coffee taste so amazing? And such.
Thiriku just began receiving coffee from their producer members for this year's fly crop – the smaller, between-harvests-harvest that is the equivalent of Colombia's mitaca – last week. There was a tiny amount of coffee on the drying table for me to photograph, but things were pretty quiet overall, and after touring the co-op's impressively-organized wet-milling operation, I sat down with the management of Thiriku in their offices and, over cups of milky tea (which I totally wasn't expecting, even though I can hear myself telling customers that Kenyan coffee growers don't drink coffee, but rather tea) discussed the desires of their 2,400 members, our coffee-purchasing philosophies, and some of the challenges that Thiriku and Counter Culture face if we want to work together in the future to buy larger amounts of coffee and develop a long-term relationship. We have all become accustomed to drinking a variety of small, exquisite lots from different Kenyan producer groups, including the ones I mentioned, each year. While we love the variety and exploration of flavor that this approach affords us, we also look longingly toward a day when we find the equivalent of our La Golondrina or 21st de Septiembre in a Kenyan cooperative.
So what's stopping us? Well, like I said, Kenya is interesting, not least because we consistently pay double, triple, or quadruple the price we pay for other Direct Trade coffees for our Kenyan coffees. These prices owe, in part, to the spectacularly complex, savory, and citrusy flavor profile of the best Kenyan coffees (like this year's Thiriku), which are unmistakable and impossible to substitute. Even more than the flavor profile, though, the prices result from the unique Kenyan coffee auction system that regulated all of Kenya's coffee sales for almost 70 years, until the opening of the "second window system" in 2006. Since then, Counter Culture has purchased most of our coffees through that window, which allows for direct negotiation and price discovery outside of the auction. Because the weekly coffee auction in Nairobi still exists and tempts growers every year with the possibility, however remote, of some random buyers falling in love with a coffee and bidding up its price at auction, we have found ourselves paying higher prices for the privilege of buying coffees directly than these coffees could ever fetch at an auction! This instability and lack of commitment can be frustrating, and don't lend themselves to the formation of a long-term relationship.
The lot we purchased from Thiriku this year is one of those top-dollar lots: exquisite in the cup and limited in quantity. In my travels and negotiations, I often explain to groups of growers that we could buy coffee from them at any price, but that a higher-priced coffee is more difficult to sell. Happily, I was able to share our experiences and puzzle over this predicament with the leadership of the Thiriku co-op.
Unfortunately, I had to leave our discussion earlier than I would have liked to in order to make my way back to the bustling capital before dark. We expect the arrival of new-crop coffees from Thiriku and a few other farmer co-op societies in the very near future, and I know that it won't be a moment too soon for lovers of these complex, savory coffees! I am excited to know Thiriku and to communicate over the course of this year, hopefully in the name of finding more great lots and building on this year's strategizing in the years to come.
From the Road: Burundi, June 20106-15-10
Hello from Burundi! This is my first trip to Burundi, and my first trip to the African continent since I was 17. I am giddy with excitement, and I don't know where to begin!
I suppose I should begin with the coffee, huh? Last year, Counter Culture Coffee purchased coffee from three washing stations in Burundi: Kiryama, Nemba, and Teka. I loved them all, if you're wondering, but my secret favorite was Kiryama. In Burundi, as in Rwanda and Kenya, we have traditionally called our coffees by the names of the washing stations – as opposed to co-op or farm, as we do in Latin America – and I was thrilled to spend the past few days visiting washing stations in the Kayanza and Muyinga provinces to the northeast of the capital city of Bujumbura. The washing station plays a very important role in the greatness of Burundi's coffee: every morning during the harvest season, across the hills of this tiny country, farmers harvest coffee from the (mostly Bourbon-variety) trees on their small plots of land. And every afternoon, they hoist the morning's coffee cherries onto their heads, or backs, or, occasionally, bicycles, and bring their loads to the nearest coffee washing station, where the coffee is sorted and weighed, and the weight of the coffee recorded for payment. At that point, the coffee ceases to belong to the grower and becomes the property of the washing station, and the washing station takes responsibility for preserving and creating quality by keeping the de-pulping machine calibrated, by controlling the fermentation of the coffee, by washing the coffee in clean water, by drying the coffee evenly, and by running a generally well-organized operation.
As a result of Tim Hill's visit to Burundi in February (2010), as well as his relentless pursuit of great coffee and information from our partners in the coffee sector of Burundi, Counter Culture signed a contract in advance of this year's harvest with a brand-spanking-new washing station named Buziraguhindwa (boo-zee-rah-goo-HEEN-dwa). In addition to its tongue-twisting name, Buziraguhindwa interested us for a couple of reasons: first, it is located in Kayanza province, a stone's throw from Nemba; second, the owners recruited Cassien Nibaruta, whom we knew from his work managing Teka, to run the new operation; and, third, Buziraguhindwa was willing to sign a Transparency Contract with us. In the simple, two-page contract, we define the prices and premiums to be paid by Counter Culture to each actor in the coffee supply chain: from the importer to the exporter to the washing station to the farmer. For a washing station that works with more than 1,000 growers, that is a big commitment and requires a high degree of organization.
I arrived at Buziraguhindwa during a meeting of producer representatives from the collines (colline is the French word for hill, and the hill is the unit that defines communities here in Burundi) around the washing station. One of the field agents for the Burundi Agribusiness Project was instructing these colline leaders about good agricultural practices and strategizing with them about ways in which more growers can actively engage with the washing station. This meeting brought into focus a crucial difference between Burundi's culture of coffee growing and the culture of Latin America that has shaped my vision of producers and relationships: the washing station is not a substitute for a co-operative, but rather an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT way of approaching coffee and people! This might seem obvious to some of you, but I kind of always imagined that Burundian coffee growers identified with their washing stations like Latin Americans identified with their co-ops. Having visited a few, I now believe that sort of identification is only beginning to take place. At Buziraguhindwa, I introduced myself and Counter Culture, to the assembly, and I spoke, as I always do, about why we believe that quality and long-term relationships benefit everyone from coffee producers to coffee drinkers. I asked questions about why growers bring coffee to Buziraguhindwa instead of other washing stations and found that the choice consistently came down to price and proximity, more than any sense of loyalty. On one hand, flexibility is not a bad thing, especially in a coffee industry still growing and maturing, in a country still stabilizing after a generation of turmoil. Likewise, plenty of growers in Latin America abandon commitments to their cooperatives and sell to other buyers if they can get a higher price by doing so. But even understanding all of that, it's still awfully hard to feel complete confidence building on a system that isn't necessarily consistent from one year to the next. Well, then, what to do?
Interestingly, while Burundi's specialty coffee industry may be young, it's learning quickly. Following the visit to Buziraguhindwa , we traveled further north to the Rwandan border to visit Ruhororo, the first washing station in the country to be purchased by a co-operative of coffee farmers. Ruhororo is generating a lot of discussion across Burundi's coffee sector because it represents a shift toward grower empowerment and responsibility. The importance of the washing station will not diminish anytime soon – and that's a very, very good thing from a quality perspective – so it is crucial to use the washing stations to incorporate growers into the coffee supply chain. Examples like Ruhororo, active management of washing stations, and more cupping throughout the country are all pieces of this puzzle.
I am proud that Counter Culture is here, on the ground, sharing experiences and strategies from our partnerships around the world in order to help Burundi establish systems that work: for its culture, for coffee quality and for the long term. We're exploring, learning and making progress at an exhilarating pace.
Tomorrow, I head to the cupping lab to taste the first round of Buziraguhindwa samples, as well as samples from a few other washing stations. Cassien promised to meet me there to talk about continuing improvements to the infrastructure of Buziraguhindwa, about how price premiums will be delivered, and about how much coffee they have produced so far in comparison to their expectations. I forgot to mention that the harvest is only now hitting its peak! After a wrap-up meeting with Emile and the BAP team, it's early to bed in preparation for my 3 a.m. flight to Kenya and a whole new set of observations from there!
I will leave Burundi more than a little bit enamored of this country, its people, and its coffee, I admit. With a delicious flavor profile, a nimble and fast-growing coffee industry,and heavy investment by the development community, my head spins at Burundi's potential. Plus, can you believe that many people speak four languages? They don't even blink at switching from Kirundi to French to English and throwing in some Swahili. According to an adage in Kirundi, “It is only the cows that speak just one language,” and while I want to be offended when a group of Burundians tells me this as they tease me about my botched French, their laughter is infectious and all I can do is say murakoze (thank you) – for your patience, your affection and your answers to my endless questions – while I keep trying.
- Back from the Road: A Visit to Popayán, Colombia, During Harvest Season
- Back from the Road: Mexico, April 2010
- Back from the Road: Burundi, February 2010
- Back from the Road: Idido Misty Valley, Shall We Meet Again?
- Back from the Road: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, The Direct Specialty Trade Auction
- From the Road: The Secret Coffee Farmers of East Java