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Burundi – 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.’