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March 2008

After the end of my Rwanda stint in Butare our Saidi, from SPREAD, gave me a lift down to the Burundian border, which is only 30 minutes away. Crossing the Rwandan-Burundian border is easy enough so my new traveling companions (Elliot and Flaurent) and myself, headed south to the Kayanza district in no time.

Burundi and Rwanda have geography, Belgian colonization and great coffee in common. However, one difference that is immediately apparent upon crossing that southern border into Burundi is the poverty. Burundi is a much poorer place than its neighboring country to the north. Sure, there are dirty (in sense of not bathing) children wearing nothing but rags in Rwanda as well, but it seems like all of them are this way down here in Burundi. Instead of decent wood, brick, and concrete structures that are the homes of many Rwandans, Burundians all seem to be leaving in clay huts with straw roofs that don’t appear to stand a chance against the arduous elements brought along by the 6+ month rainy season.

I’m glad that we’re here and ready to start making our impact on some of these impoverished coffee communities. My plan was to visit the Kayanza and Kirimiro sogestals as well as ISABU, the OCIBU cupping lab and USAID/DAI.

Let me take a step back here for a second and fill you folks in on a few of the necessary details regarding the Burundian coffee industry. Number 1, what exactly is a sogestal. OK, good question. A sogestal is the larger entity, typically a regionally based entity, within Burundi to which multiple washing stations belong. They are the Kenyan equivalent to the cooperative under which the washing stations are known as factories. Kayanza, as an example is the home of 27 different washing stations in the northern region of the country. The majority ownership of the sogestals is private but the government always owns a small percentage of each of them. In the case of Kayanza the ratio is 86% private to 14% government owned.

Secondly, who is OCIBU? OCIBU is the coffee board of Burundi who, until very recently, was in charge of the sale of every coffee through an auction system similar to that of Kenya and Tanzania. They also did the lot grading for these coffees, which range from AAA (largest beans) to AA, to AB, to C to PB. AA are the midsized beans with AB making the smaller sized beans that are screen size 15 and up. PB’s, of course, are the Peaberrys, which we know are quite small. Isabelle is the Burundian woman who manages the cupping lab in Bujumbura and she quite a dynamic woman. Since we began our visits to Burundi last year she has always kept her doors open to us and been fully onboard when it comes to working the way we like to. We need day lot separation among other things and this is a foreign concept to most folks not to mention a lot more work for the cuppers on the ground. Isabelle is in to it! I’m certain she’ll prove to be a great asset for us in the future.

Thirdly, who is ISABU? ISABU is a coffee research center with 8 locations across Burundi. HQ is in Kayanza and managed by a bright guy by the name of Gilbert. Gilbert has dedicated the majority of his time to two causes, foreign varietal testing and a cure for the potato problem. In addition to two Bourbon Mayaguez varietals that were brought from Ethiopia, Jackson that was brought from India, and two varietals of Mibirizi which is native to Burundi, Gilbert is testing 9 other varietals from Kenya, Ethiopia and India to see how they behave in the northern Burundian terrior. He’s promised a look at the results from this year’s harvest. Gilbert is also involved in finding a cure for the potato problem, which he is certain stems from a boring insect. He believes that the boring of the insect into the bean creates a fungus that is responsible for the raw potato flavor we find in both Burundian and Rwandan coffees. Currently ISABU is experimenting with different insecticide applications in hopes of finding the remedy.

OK, so our first meeting of the day was with Anselme, commercial manager of the Kayanza Sogestal as well as Flaurent, the production manager for all of Kayanza’s washing stations. Through our numerous blind cuppings of 40+ washing stations across Burundi last year, we targeted 3 washing stations as the best EACH TIME. Two of those washing stations are within the Kayanza Sogestal so we’re looking to lock up coffee now, for this coming crop. I hesitate to print the name of these washing stations in this document as surely there are folks out there looking to get their mitts on some of the coffees that the Stumptown is diligently trying to make better. We need to make sure these coffees get to us.

We went out to the first washing station, at 1830 masl, and went through the process. It was as complete a process as I have seen anywhere. Cherry is first hand selected at the receiving station and then floated for density. The coffees are then depulped with a 3-disc McKinnon machine that may be the top equipment anywhere right now. These McKinnon’s are built to do a weight separation before sending the wet parchment to the different fermentation tanks. The first quality parchment will then be dry fermented, no water, for 36ish hours. It’s then washed and again separated by quality in the washing channels and then sent to soaking tanks for 24 hours. If I haven’t mentioned this before, soaking builds proteins and amino acids within the bean’s cell structure that heighten the coffee’s acidity levels. It also helps to give the coffee a darker, bluish-green appearance, which, in the good old days of the coffee commodity market, was the aesthetic ingredient, coveted by coffee traders. Um, how about the cup quality? After soaking, the coffee is sent directly to the primary drying beds where it will dry to 11.5% moisture within 9-15 days depending on the climate.

The process is great, almost untouchable. However, I had an idea. Dripping wet coffee is susceptible to damage when put out into direct sunlight to dry. Irreparable damage can be done to the core of the bean that will negatively affect the flavor profile. I suggested that they try an experiment to pre-dry the coffee for 2 days, on raised beds, under a shaded structure, a la Kanzu, before sending the coffee to the primary drying beds. Airflow is what acts as the primary drying agent to wet parchment anyway. It will also allow sorters to more easily see defects lying in the beds as they do their jobs. After the two day period, the parchment, now drying in direct sunlight, will be covered everyday between 11am and 2pm to better protect the fragile parchment from the sun’s most excessive heat. I’ll keep you all updated as to how it turns out.

Our next visit was to another Kayanza washing station on our hit list located around 1760 masl. The process was very similar to that of the first so there is nothing overly important to report other than that we will be seeing the full range of day lots, at least from the peak harvest, for both of these washing stations. Get that sample roaster warmed up, Jimmy!

Our following day’s visits were to ISABU and then off to the Kirimiro Sogestal to visit an isolated washing station with Cassian, the sogestal’s production manager. Cassian spent a year working in the SPREAD program in Rwanda. He has great experience and the necessary curiosity about him that will make him a success. He listened attentively as we made suggestions about his process. Cassian, too, sorts cherry before floating and also depulps in a 3-disc McKinnon. The wet parchment is dry fermented for 18 hours before being wet fermented for an additional 14-18 hours. The parchment is then washed in the washing channels before being soaked for another 12 hours. Drying ranges between 13-17 days out at this particular washing station and Cassian will also partake in our drying experiment. I think we’ll be seeing some great lots from the 3-4 washing stations we will be sampling day lots from.
On our way south to Bujumbura we stopped to meet Adrian Siboman, the ex-prime minister of Burundi. Yes, that’s what I said. Adrian is working in collaboration with Elliot and will be handling the sampling of our Burundian coffees. Before I delve deeper into Adrian’s involvement in our project let me tell you a bit about the man himself. Adrian grew up in a peasant family in the Northern Burundian district of Mumwyria. The always calm and collected man showed emotion only once on our two days together when we drove through Mumwyria frustrated noting, ‘look I put a butcher shop and a grocery market in town and now there is nothing.’ Adrian was once governor of this particular district and still considers it ‘his area’. He became the first Hutu Prime Minister of Burundi in 2002. He and his party lost the elections a year later to the dominant Tutsi party. Instead of throwing out the elections and holding his seat in office, as many of his fellow Hutu party members did, Adrian abided by the election law and left office without controversy. Many of his fellow Hutu party members who failed to leave their posts were killed. In 2004, the Burundian and Rwandan Primes Ministers were shot down on their return flight from the Tanzanian peace conferences. This single event is known as the trigger to the Rwandan genocide.

So Adrian has survived to fight another battle; a newer battle that takes place on coffee growing soils across his country. Along with working as an agent for our exporter and serving as the Burundian Chapter Head of the East African Trade Development Organization, Adrian is looking to help small holder coffee farmers in ‘his area’. Burundian coffee is often divided into ‘fully washed’ and ‘washed’ categories. Fully washed coffees come from the various washing stations across the country. Washed coffees are those of small holders who either have their cherry rejected by the washing stations for ripeness issues or are just too far away from the washing stations to realistically be able to deliver on a consistent basis. These small holders depulp their coffee, wash the mucilage from the beans immediately without fermentation and dry wet parchment on small mats, on the roads in front of their homes. Without fermentation or another form of demucilaging the mucilage cannot be fully removed. These ‘washed’ coffees are bought and traded by intermediaries at very low price levels. Adrian is looking to purchases multiple Penagos 500 units to put in these isolated areas. Obviously we aren’t very interested in rejected cherry but exaggeratedly so in the ripe cherry that can’t make it to the washing stations. This will be a true shot traceability in an African producing country, which is extremely rare. We’re helping Adrian make his dream come true by networking him in with Penagos. Be patient, it could take another harvest to see proper results.

Elliot, Adrian and I spent the next day between meetings in Bujumbura. Our first was with Isabelle at the OCIBU cupping lab. We cupped several washing station lots from the Mumwira Sogestal along the Eastern corridor of the country that borders the Congo. Even though these samples were fresh and from moderate altitude, we were all impressed by the cleanliness and sweetness of each coffee. Hopefully this becomes a theme for this harvest. Isabelle, Elliot and I also discussed proper cupping protocol, which, since my last visit in August ’07, has vastly improved. Isabelle is the real deal. Along with our washing station samples from Kayanza and Kirimiro, Isabelle will be earmarking other top quality lots for the Stumptown.

The other meeting of note for the day was with Ben Lentz at DAI. Development Agency International is a group funded by USAID looking to take Burundian crop commodities to the next level in terms of profitability and sustainability. To be honest I am occasionally nervous about USAID’s roles, or any aid group for that matter, in our trade. They are, occasionally, not sending the right message to producers.

Ben and DAI, like SPREAD in Rwanda, are not a part of the problem. They seemed very hands on and willing to listen to our perspective as buyers. Ben clearly has the experience necessary to make this project successful. He will be keeping us updated with his plans and we will cup sample lots from the different experiments he is asking certain producers to undertake. Again, I’ll keep y’all posted.
This report has been long enough already so I’ll sign off here. Just know that the future feels unlimited in Burundi so much so that I need to steal a quote from Tim Schilling, ‘the future looks bright man, so bright that I got a couple of pairs of shades, man.’

Rwanda is alive and well.

The countryside is bubbling with cash crops ranging from potatoes to bananas to pilipili (hot peppers) to coffee. The organization of the farmland is world class, on the level of any other top agro-industry based country I have seen along the course of my travels. Yes, poverty is still visibly existent but the population appears strong, healthy and poised to continue it’s resurgence from the atrocities of the mid 90’s. This is especially evident in the coffee producing sector.

I arrived in Kigali this past Tuesday with plans to tour the entire country in search of what new found experiences lay ahead in coffee country and beyond. My first stop was to the Muyongwe Cooperative in the Gackenke district of the Northern Province, home to our 1st Prize Golden Cup lot. We were greeted by Antoine, the coop manager, and a host of Rwandan women who immediately burst into song and dance as we exited the car. It was beautiful albeit embarrassingly overwhelming. Thankfully we proceeded onto our meeting which included a presentation from Antoine about the coop and then one from me regarding the Stumptown and our purchasing practices. We’re tightening things up even greater this year and purchasing nothing short of 88+ cup quality. Muyongwe is capable of placing multiple lots with us. They are processing coffee in the Kenya style meaning they de-pulp, separate quality by weight, ferment for 12 hours, wash vigorously 4-5 times, ferment for another 12 hours+, wash, separate quality by density/weight in the washing channels and then soak for 24 hours. Very impressive! Global warming has dramatically affected the coffee production cycle in Rwanda which is why I am here earlier than expected in March. There isn’t much of a distinct difference in season at this point in the year meaning it takes longer to dry coffee. Most folks need upwards of 10 days to dry their coffee which is a topic I will touch on later in this report.

I spent the next 2 days touring the Western Province coffee zones along the shore of Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is majestic. There is a regal gleam to the water’s surface that doesn’t shimmer, but glows, confined below the rolling hills on the Rwandan side and towering mountains on the Congolese side of the lake. Wooden fishing boats line shores with sparse housing in between the fishing camps. There is something definitely European mixed in with the tropical feeling of being on Lake Kivu. Hopefully my pictures do more justice than my words.

Among my many stops on the washing station tour was Kanzu in the Nyamasheke district of the Western Province. Kanzu won 4th prize at the Golden Cup competition and was not only my favorite during that week of cupping in Maraba, but quite possibly my favorite coffee of the year. It’s caramel, brown sugar, fresh butter and dark cherry flavors still haunt my dreams at night. As we pulled off the side of the road and embarked on our walk down to the washing station I felt a chill run down my spine. Yes, the area is pristine but I was cold! We were easily above 2000 masl which we know is giant altitude for coffee production. The washing station itself is at 1860 masl and perfectly situated in the cone between three mountain peaks. I spent the rest of the day with Alphonse, owner of the washing station, and his crew of knowledgeable coffee folks. His process seemed fairly standard – cherry flotation, density separation of wet parchment, 12+ hour ferment and 24 hour soaking – until we touched on their drying practices. Instead of the typical 4-5 hour pre-drying/defect sorting on raised beds under the full shade of a wooden roof, Alphonse is leaving the coffee under the roof for 2 full days before taking it out to raised beds in the sun. Even once out in the sun the coffee is covered every day between 12pm and 2pm to shield the fragile beans from the most intense sun of the day. The entire drying cycle can take up to 20 days! Hearing about this process made me instantly think of our friend Isaias Cantillo Osa at La Esperanza in Colombia. He uses an identical method of drying and his coffee won top prize at the 2007 Colombia Cup of Excellence! All of the research of I have done this past year leads me to believe that the longer it takes to dry coffee, the more mouth feel, or body, the coffee will demonstrate in the cup. You see, it’s a more gentle process that not only does less damage to the cell structure of the coffee but allows for more development of soluble solids as well. This equates to heavier tactile sensation. Kanzu has it, La Esperanza has it and we’re looking forward to special lots from both folks later this year.

We left Alphonse after a delicious meal of brochette (goat skewers), pilipili, pomme fritte and mutzig (local Rwandan beer). (Seriously Bosco, I may be hanging at your place more often getting my goat on.) Our next stop was Cyangugu at the southern end of the lake. We had successfully navigated the lake from its northern point of Gisenyi to the south. I can’t explain how beautiful the experience was and how honored I feel to have been able to go it myself. Cyangugu is a bustling border town just minutes from the Congo. It’s not pretty. It’s typical. I very much enjoy those towns where there is a seemingly endless amount of shady activity. To me, nothing is more real. I spent that evening reveling in Cyangugu’s spirit, drinking beer and taking it all in with my travel companion’s from SPREAD, Pascal and Casper. Nothing exceedingly exciting happened but nonetheless it was a night I will not soon forget.

We awoke early the next morning and headed East to Butare in the Southern Province. We stopped at a couple of nondescript washing stations along the way, avoided a simple assault from a crazy man outside of town, passed through Nyungwe National Park with an endless supply of white-faced monkeys on the side of the road and made it safely to Butare. I spent the afternoon with the Stumptown’s good friend Tim Schilling, Director of the USAID funded SPREAD project. Tim and SPREAD are responsible for regenerating life into the Rwandan coffee sector after the genocide. They are heroes. It’s a humbling feeling to be involved in a movement that is for the good of producers not only here but worldwide. These are the moments that put that thought at the forefront of everything.

Today’s destination was Karaba. Karaba is one of our longest standing relationships. The farmers are genocide survivors who have found coffee to be their salvation. SPREAD and the Stumptown have collaborated to bring economic change to their livelihoods and remain committed to them for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the harvest has not yet begun in the Southern Province, but I was able to sit down and discuss strategy with Alexis, the washing station manager, for this coming harvest. As always, the coffee is good but could be better. More mature coffee cherry is the key ingredient to seeing that to fruition. Alexis understands.

Monday I meet with representatives from Rwashossco, the exporting group that works directly with the cooperatives. Our primary goal is to try and find a solution to the biggest woe the Rwandan coffee sector has faced over the past 5+ years: shipping. Our coffee needs to ship months sooner than it does for freshness reasons. If the current situation doesn’t improve a fatal blow could be struck to national coffee farmers. I am confident we will find a solution.

I am writing this report from an internet cafe in Butare. I have the weekend to further explore the ‘city’. There is one main strip in town, and this unique culture of survivors. The unexpected is expected.

Although alive and well poignant imagery of the genocide still remains particularly in the form of war criminals, both convicted and still awaiting trial after 10 years, occupying roadside work camps throughout the country. They are unmistakable with their brilliant pink garb and depressed demeanor. It has a subliminal affect on the Rwandan populous that is also unmistakable. The average Rwandan still has vivid memories of the devastation that took this country by force in 1994 and to me, still lives in fear of the Interahamwe, the Hutu led rebel group responsible for killing anywhere from 500,000 to 1,100,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers.

The remaining Interahamwe fled Rwanda and have taken root in the eastern frontiers of the Congo. The Congolese government seems unable, or unwilling, to rid the zone of these brutally evil forces. The Rwandan population is still very much aware of their position and some individuals seem to continue living in fear of repeat violence. They keep pushing forward though, with strength that conjures images of Africa’s greatest tribal warriors.

Murakoze Rwanda,
Aleco