Today, coffee—and its success—is vital to Burundi’s economy. Coffee is its leading export, slightly edging out gold in terms of value, and an estimated 600,000-800,000 coffee farmers are involved in its production, with an average plot size of .12 hectares (think 110 feet square) and ~ 200 trees. If a smallholder farmer doesn’t own coffee trees, he or she knows someone who does.
Coffee was introduced to Burundi in the 1930s by the Belgians who had brought over Arabica coffee seedlings. After independence in 1962, the coffee sector was privately run for more than a decade, and the quality and quantity of coffee produced during that period slowly eroded due to the repeated political upheaval. The coffee sector was eventually taken over by the state in 1976, with mixed results, and from 1991 to 2008 the government set up an auction system. In 2008 the World Bank led the privatization of the coffee sector, making it possible for private companies and cooperatives to own washing stations and dry mills that had previously been owned by the state.
Currently, a minimum cherry price is set by the government to protect smallholder farmers, but when the coffee market is extremely low as it has been this past year, it can make it challenging for cooperatives, for example, to meet their overall cost of production. Still, progress is being made – a $55 million World Bank funded coffee project (Coffee Sector Competitiveness Support Project), which began in 2016, improved production by over 15% between 2016 and 2018 by giving farmers subsidies for fertilizer and insecticides, grants for bicycles, training, and motorcycles and vehicles to agronomists. Burundi’s topography, like neighboring Rwanda, is very hilly –great for coffee trees to thrive – with most coffee growing between 1,200-2,000 meters above sea level and harvest running from March to July.
Burundi currently has around 283 washing stations and 8 dry mills throughout the country (both privately, and cooperatively owned), but concentrated in the Northern and Central provinces. Burundi’s washed-process coffees are also unique in that they are often “double fermented”/”double washed”, which results in an exceptionally clean and tasty cup. First cherry is floated in a bucket or concrete basin with underripe coffee aka “floaters” skimmed off; then it’s depulped and dry-fermented for 12-24 hours where it sits in a tank; followed by being washed n channels (with different quality coffees going into different tanks based on density); and finally then wet-fermented/soaked for another 12 hours before put on raised beds for sorting and drying for 10-20 days depending on weather. Coffees from Burundi are hard to beat, offering bright stone fruit notes, juicy acidity, and silky body, and each holiday season we look forward to arrivals from our Burundi partners.