Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
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 Season5-26-10
The phrase “100% Colombian Coffee” may appear on many a can of supermarket coffee flavor crystals, but over the past couple of years, the world of Colombian coffee has been anything but boring. Unusual weather patterns and high price premiums made for fierce competition in the market for Colombia’s best coffees in 2009, and, last September, after visiting the growers of our La Golondrina coffee from Cauca, Colombia, I wrote in my trip report about some of the challenges – like soil fertility and low productivity – faced by our partners in the Organica association. Sharing heavily-sweetened coffee and sancocho (the delicious chicken stew of Colombia that farmers take pride in preparing for guests), the growers and I comforted ourselves by reassuring one another that the market would would surely calm down before the following year’s harvest.
Eight months later, I returned to beautiful Popayán, this time with Alejandro Cadena of the export company Virmax and my boyfriend, Kieran, to the same coffee farmers and to the same sancocho, and together we marveled at how wrong our predictions were! This year’s rainy season brought a nasty case of roya, or leaf rust, to farms large and small all over the country, and high price premiums continue as a result of factors outside of our control, like currency appreciation. The silver lining to these challenges is that in working through each one, our ability to communicate, to solve problems, and to trust one another improves enormously.
This year’s harvest began at the end of April, which is early for the Orgánica growers, and my arrival to Popayán last week coincided with the first week of heavy coffee picking. Visiting farms at the peak of the harvest provides great perspective on the variations in selection, sorting, and processing among the many small farms of the association. After Orgánica leaders Nelson Melo and Liliana Pabón picked us up at the airport, we headed immediately out to revisit the coffee farms that produced Counter Culture’s microlots during the mid-season, or mitaca, harvest: Finca Villa María, owned by Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero, and Arismendes Vargas’s Finca Villa Nueva. Both of these farms have experimented with the coffee fermentation process, which is unusual for small-scale growers, and, given the success of their coffees, it’s important to us that these growers not only receive recognition from us but also share their experiences with their neighbors and other members of the association who might never have considered trying something new.
After lunch at Finca Villa Nueva, Arismendes’ mother presented me with a cake on behalf of all of the growers and a rousing rendition of Feliz Cumpleaños ensued in honor of my birthday – the birthday which I had purposely tried to keep under wraps! I blushed and cut slices of a (thankfully) gigantic cake for 21 farmers and Arismendes’ five children. Oh, and it was a carrot cake with simple white frosting, if you’re wondering, washed down with cane-sugar Coca-Cola. Mmmmmm, sugar.
Although Manuel and Arismendes accompanied me to a number of different farms, we struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Coffee historians might recall that in the 1870s, leaf rust (hemileia vastatrix) reduced the production of modern-day Indonesia by 90 percent in just a few years. A fungus that incubates in moist conditions but spreads with heat, leaf rust is almost impossible to control once it reaches the leaves of the coffee plant, which will appear to be covered in a rust-like powder and then fall off, leaving the tree starved for the nutrients it needs to ripen its coffee fruit.
Some of the growers in the association have little to no rust on their farms, whereas others stand to lose up to 50 percent of this year’s crop. Asking about the discrepancies, I discovered that some farmers took heed of warnings from the Colombian Coffee Federation, Virmax, Orgánica’s agronomists, and others to take precautionary measures against rust, while others did not, and that in this case, as in so many things, an ounce of prevention – organic as much as chemical – is worth a pound of cure.
We spent four days on farms around Popayán and, aside from inevitable loss in this year’s crop precipitated by leaf rust, the farmers responsible for La Golondrina are making progress toward even better-tasting coffee and stable productivity levels. Work continues on Virmax’s farm, Belgravia, where they have applied the first “harvest” of worm compost to young coffee plants, and Nelson and Liliana have built a similar set of composting beds at their farm.
Most of La Golondrina’s growers lack the necessary quantities of fertilizer and have disorganized composting operations when they have them at all, so we’re all anxious to see how both plants and farmers respond to the worm compost. Will they see the value in buying it, at subsidized rates, from the association? Will some of them buy worms and begin their own operations? I have my fingers and toes crossed for this … as well as for the recovery from leaf rust … and for stability in the Colombian coffee market … not to mention, as always, for the quality of the harvest! It’s a lot to hope for, but I’m forever an optimist.
- 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
- From the Road: Salaam from Sumatra