Imagine. Two countries ravaged for generations with the threat of violence and disorder, where even neighbors may have had long histories fraught with conflict. First under German colonists, then under the Belgian colonial regime, those who had been neighbors for generations were played against each other to the benefit of the ruling class. Unfortunately, I could be talking about many places throughout the colonized world, but this article is about Rwanda and Burundi specifically.
Rwanda and Burundi have been the focus of media for decades after the Rwandan Genocide; the prime example of what could go wrong, and how tensions could lead to genocide so quickly. But in actuality, the Genocide didn’t occur without warning signs.
Clear divisions go as far back as the middle of the 19th century, when king Kigeli IV Rwabugiri, the first king to be contacted by Western powers, imposed a system of patronage that resulted in Hutu communities being treated as serfdoms. Colonial powers played off this inequity, treating Hutu people as lower caste. The later 1972 Burundi Genocide is almost never mentioned, though it clearly influenced politics in its neighboring country. Fighting intensified in the 1980s and early 90s, and the rift between Hutu and Tutsi was widened further.
While it is true that the Hutus and Tutsis have historically been subject to economic disparity, colonialism took advantage of this situation, exacerbated it with an ‘Ethnicity’ system based on eugenics and quack physiognomy, brewed it for generations, and left it to boil over after independence. Western powers completely failed to prevent these genocides, and in some cases are still seen as complicit.
Tragically, it simply wasn’t in the interests of the western world to get involved in local politics of a former Belgian colony, especially without a financial motive. In Rwanda, a civil war was raging in 1993. Adding to this stress was the collapse of coffee prices in the previous year (bottoming out around $0.49/lb), making intervention in a war-torn country where coffee was a primary export even less attractive. Even as I write this, I understand how awful it sounds. And it is an objectively awful situation.
But life is slowly getting better in these two countries. Coffee industry began recovering immediately following the Genocide (coffee prices also spiked about 136% in 1994), and international aid came flowing in afterwards (go figure). Rwanda has made an incredible leap forward in terms of development, and Kigali is a very modern city. Burundi has not fared as well, and their recovery is slow. Bujumbura is where I started my journey, and I went into the experience expecting to see the effects of this rough history laid bare…
I set out for this trip with the expectation that Burundi would be a war zone. I was full up to my neck with world news media histrionically declaring murder and strife. While there were certainly problems in Burundi immediately before I arrived (the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, extended his term limits in the most recent election), it was certainly not the image of havoc that the media had placed in my mind. Or the minds of my worried parents, for that matter. It isn’t all histrionics, however. Nkurunziza did ban jogging, after all.
Merely seven days before I boarded my first flight, I received word that I would be traveling to Africa. In a flurry of activity, I booked tickets, prepared my camera gear, and booked travel nurse appointments. Luckily my partner was able to take care of our spoiled cat that week (kitty demands three meals a day – we take pity on her because she only has four teeth). I did miss a few gamelan rehearsals, but how many opportunities per lifetime does one get the opportunity to travel to Africa?
Due to the short lead time, my flight itinerary was … interesting, in the same sort of way my Dad thinks my music is interesting: SFO – EWR – BRU – BJM
A mere 40 hours after boarding my first flight, and I landed in Bujumbura. A short walk across steamy tarmac and I was waiting in a long line for a visa. I was one of the last to arrive, and AFCA had kindly arranged for a shuttle to pick me up from the airport. The way to the hotel was dark and quiet. For a capital city there was nearly no light pollution, and stars were clearly visible in between the clouds. The quiet streets and dark highway didn’t do much to get my mind off the bad news I had read before departure. Arriving at the hotel in one piece, I was greeted by a very nice concierge who informed me that the kitchen was still open. Thank heavens for that, and the samosas that followed!
The very next morning, the group convened at breakfast and we loaded up into cars to our first destination. We got a late start and began the ascent into the mountains that harbor the coffee production in this tiny country. On our way up, we saw many bicyclists hitching rides on the back of trucks to get to the top of the hill. Curiously, they also hitched rides on the way down (probably to save their brakes). Skitching certainly isn’t my speed, but it looked like everyone was having fun.
We arrived at our first stop near Gitega, a washing station run by a cooperative named Mboneramiryango. A small road twisted into the shrubbery led us toward the sound of drums, and we came around a corner to find ourselves the subject of an incredible welcoming party. Upwards of 200 people had gathered at the washing station, and a music and dance crew of more than 30 people were giving it their all. The amount of energy present in their performance snapped me out of my jetlagged state, and brought our entire crew into higher spirits almost immediately.
For every trip I’ve been on, there’s a point of raw realization that you’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s nothing quite like loud music to put you into that frame of mind, and these drummers must have seen the effect they were having – it was smiles all around.
The coffee at Mboneramiryango comes in from surrounding villages at an astounding rate. This washing station, we were told, produced 40 containers per year. That’s 720 metric tons, or 1,540,000 lbs. It didn’t seem like a big washing station, so they certainly kept things efficient. The drying tables were all at capacity.
We made our way to the local meeting hall, where we were presented a smorgasbord of fruits – a giant table covered with bananas, watermelon, oranges, and other fruit. Hiding in the back, we saw the drumming crew taking a much-needed break. We got back in the SUVs and found that our guide Arthur had purchased some sandwiches for us – a delicious brie and prosciutto sandwich with arugula. Completely unexpected and ridiculously tasty. Where does one find such a sandwich in Burundi!?
Afterwards, we visited the Budeca Dry Mill, which we were told mills 60% of the coffee in Burundi. During our visit, things were quiet and finishing touches were underway on their new expansion. Harvest had just started. Abdallah Khalfani is the manager of this mill, has been in the coffee industry for decades, and was instrumental in setting up the current coffee production infrastructure in Burundi. He worked to advise the government on supply chain logistics, pricing structures, and quality differentiation during the restructuring of the coffee industry in the early 2000s. Now he oversees mill operations at Budeca. Abdallah showed us their quality control process which included screen size distribution and moisture measurement for every delivered lot, with original samples referenced against randomized samples taken from many bags. Every delivery is cupped as well, and records are kept so that the staff can build lots with balanced flavor profiles. Adballah clearly runs a very tight ship.
Next, we headed North to Kayanza, where we were greeted by a women’s cooperative that presented something of a didactic tale, interspersed with song and dance. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a full translation. One woman was clearly the leader of the group, and her voice carried over the laughter and interjections of the crowd. A call and response between her and another member was punctuated by a refrain sung by whole group. When the story concluded, everyone sang together, and invited us to dance with them. We heard from the cooperative’s director, who told us a little about their group, and showed us that they are experiencing some leaf rust in this area, despite being at 1500 meters above sea level. It seems nowhere has been spared.
From Kayanza we traveled East to Ngozi, the capital of Ngozi Province and the hometown of the current President of Burundi. We arrived late that night, and I had the opportunity to try fufu in Africa for the first time. This version of the cassava and plantain staple food was pillowy and not too sticky and came with a side of vegetables called isombe (mashed cassava leaves with dried fish) – I was starting to feel pretty good after this meal. The next morning, before getting on the road again, I had an omelet that was comprised mostly of shelled peas, another first (though I didn’t go back for seconds on this one). The coffee was good and hot on this foggy Ngozi morning.
We made our way back to the Kayanza area and visited a washing station called Mubuga, where we saw the same group from the women’s cooperative. Mubuga is where they bring their freshly harvested cherry to dry on raised beds. After a welcoming dance attended by a large crowd of onlookers, we received a very detailed presentation on the process of purchasing from local producers, and the general logistics of running this washing station. This was a newish facility, and our host from Bugestal told us about the support they were receiving from Kahawatu, which included cell phones for washing station managers, wireless internet, and software for registering farmers and their daily deliveries. Bugestal also monitors deliveries to their warehouses with this software, and handles transport, deliveries, and financials. Another very tight ship.
We made the trip back to Ngozi and visited Greenco, a supplier of green coffee with offices in Ngozi. They have a fantastic view, overlooking a valley. We met their team, saw their cupping facilities, and headed back to our hotel to have dinner and a break before the next day, which would be chock full of travel. Maxime from Greenco treated us to sliced pineapple and a very nice swiss pastry: a giant, mildly citrusy wheel-like coffee cake. Without this coffeecake we may have been overwhelmed with the amount of coffee we tasted afterwards.
The very next morning after a breakfast of toast and eggs (I made it a point to skip the pea omelet this time), we traveled to the North of Kayanza in order to see some of the production sites Greenco works with. Gakenke washing station welcomed us with a musical performance by some of the staff at the site, and this band had some serious shredders. Perhaps that’s a term best reserved for heavy metal, but I found it fitting since this group was incredibly tight. The dancers accompanying the group gave it their all, and their choreography was just as synchronized as the musicians.
Cherry selection at this site was extensive. Multiple queues had started, each one with a different purpose. First, a sample of coffee is floated to determine if the entire lot must be floated. This helps to select for more dense, riper coffee. Once the full lot passes the floating section with no floating cherries, they can queue in the visual selection line. Visual defects are removed at this point, and when the lot is clean, the coffee is weighed, and the farmer is given a receipt for their coffee.
Lines at this washing station were not short, and if even one cherry floats the lot moves to the back of the first line. Incentivizing good picking and post-harvest practices helps the washing station maintain quality. Another idea behind this process is that hopefully cherries will be floated at home prior their being carried to the washing station – something that also saves the farmer time and carried weight.
Our next stop was an independent dry mill named Horamama. Here we learned some of the deeper history of Burundi’s coffee industry and heard about the 33 cooperatives that fall under COCOCA’s union. Hailing from four main regions (represented by the dances of Intore (Tutsi), Ingoma (Zulu), Agasimbo (Makamba), and Umuyebe (Mirwa)), these cooperatives pulp and wash coffees at their various washing stations. The coffee is then sent on to the Horamama mill, where it is made export-ready. COCOCA then handles the financing and marketing of the coffees.
We tasted coffees from Bugestal and COCOCA here, and the quality was fantastic. For those of you afraid of potato defect from this area of the world, it is worth noting that there were no potatoes whatsoever. This ambitious cupping had about 35 coffees on the table (that’s 175 cups), and keeping the hot water supplied was a challenge. Hosted by the gracious Ephrem Sebatigita and Eliane Uwihaye, the cupping went swimmingly. We made it through and were greeted by a sudden downpour on our way to the cars. How cathartic on a hot day.
That night had us arriving at the Rwandan border, and we made it through after only about 2 hours of deliberation. The air was thick with bureaucracy, but I had the opportunity to see some very interesting weaver birds doing what they do best.
We made it to Kigali quite late but had dinner at a fantastic Korean restaurant at the suggestion of our guide, Inyoung Anna Kim. A little spiciness helps clear the mind after a long day in the car. The next day would be a big one, and this fortification helped us along.
In the morning of the next day, we visited NAEB (the National Agricultural Export Development Board) to hear about the coffee supply chain works in Rwanda, as well as a little history about its development. Bill Kayonga, the CEO, was a wonderful host and the knowledge he imparted helped us understand more before we started our journey in earnest.
Next we visited CBC (Coffee Business Center), a large milling operation right down the street from NAEB. Here coffee is collected, hulled, sorted by density, screen size, color sorter, and finally by hand. We were informed it was currently the beginning of the harvest season, so things were a bit slow. Nevertheless, the factory had more than 50 people working in various capacities. Jean Paul Rwagasana and Jean Damascene Musengimana informed us about their quality control practices and gave us a very thorough tour of their facility.
After lunch, we made an afternoon journey to another washing station named Gakenke, this one solidly in Rwanda. Perhaps confusing, but then again there 36 places named Springfield in the United States, and 11 of them are in Ohio. Here we learned a little more about why selection of wet parchment is performed in this area of the world. One of the telltale signs that coffee is tainted by the potato defect is a ‘zebra striped’ parchment, an attribute that disappears when the coffee dries even slightly. By selecting out these zebra striped beans, the occurrence of potato defect has been diminished considerably.
At the end of the day we made our way to Gisenyi, where we checked into our rooms and headed out to a delicious dinner. By this point most of us had adjusted to our jet lag, and the hearty meal was welcomed. In the morning, a few of us took a walk next to Lake Kivu to stretch our legs before the next stage of our journey.
We boarded a boat, and our gracious pilot Etienne greeted us with life jackets and a handshake. I felt like I was boarding a true sailing vessel with this man at the helm. Passing many stork-covered islands, we made our way to a small inlet, drumming echoing off the hills on either side. As we came ashore, hoards of children ran ahead of us to announce our arrival. We toured COOPAC’s facility here with our host Clarisse Nzungize Ilibagiza, and were treated to an amazing set of music, dance, and song by some very talented performers who were adept at the dances of the different indigenous people in this region. We were able to introduce ourselves to the giant crowd that amassed for the spectacle, and it felt very good to directly communicate how much we value their work.
Next we made our way to a special facility of theirs on Gishamwana island. This tiny island was more of a demonstration site, and COOPAC attempts to conserve as much water as possible when processing here. After taking 20 minutes to nearly circumambulate the island, we were treated to the best and most memorable meal I had on this trip. In a small hut on the shore, we had:
- Lenga lenga: Vegetables in a sort of peanut sauce (the description belies how delicious this was)
- Sambaza: Small fried fish, the name of which escape me (wait, maybe this was my favorite)
- Liboke: A type of steamed fish curry wrapped in banana leaves (hold on, this was clearly the best)
- A variety of different fruits, including a passionfruit that I definitely burst all over the front of my shirt
Stuffed, we motored back to the Gisenyi area and started a long drive back to the South of the country. We overnighted at Kibuye and saw some excellent views on the way from the vantage point of the Hotel Dian Fossey. We also passed one notorious site of the Rwandan genocide that our guide told us to look for when we returned to Kigali and visited the Genocide Museum. I’m glad we weren’t told the story that night. For all its beauty, the Kibuye area has an incredibly tragic history – I’m not sure I would have slept a wink.
The next day, we left from the Cormoran Lodge on a smaller boat to visit a site called Musasa. Our guide Max Veglio (accompanied by his faithful hound) showed us a little about the processing practices at this site, and hosted a cupping showing the entire breadth of the coffees they offer, from low grade natural (called “ordinary” coffee in Rwanda) coffees to some very special fully washed high grown lots. Every coffee has a home. We also got to hear about the development processes currently taking place in Rwanda, and the projected sustainability of the coffee industry. The long and short of it is that finding a road to sustainability in terms of farmer income, quality, and supply will be difficult, but not impossible.
Back on the boat, we headed north to meet up with our drivers. Passing small villages and eucalyptus plantations, we headed over a pass and came out of the trees to more fantastic views of Lake Kivu, as well as some gorgeous tea plantations. Unfortunately, one of our SUVs got a flat tire, and we had to backtrack to help them replace it. This gave me an opportunity to take some photos and get a feel for the surroundings.
People were giving us curious looks from the roadside, and it wasn’t until we stopped that I realized: we were some of the only cars on the road for miles around. Seeing a group of 3 SUVs wasn’t an everyday occurrence here. Having one stop must have been even more of a rarity.
That night, we finally made it back to Kigali. Coming out of nearly complete darkness to the bright lights of a metropolis highlighted the stark difference between the city and the country. Most of us reading here can safely assume that we will have electricity and running water; but imagine being lured in by the beacon of this city with its bright lights and its constant hum of activity. This in counterpoint to a life with limited access to all the things we take for granted…
The next day, I split off from the rest of the group to visit a washing station that Royal Coffee works with every year: Dukundekawa Cooperative. I felt that it was the least I could do since I was in the area, as we have worked with this cooperative for quite some time. What I didn’t know was how inspiring this visit would be.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by two of the coop’s managers, Emerithe Mukamurigo and Azarias Niytegeka. Emerithe graciously took us through the entire facility and showed us their daily operations. It was a slow day for arrivals (it was a Sunday after all), and there were only about 30 people working. Sundays are not only a religious holiday here, but also a public works day where citizens are required to help with a community project once per month.
Like other washing stations we had seen, wet parchment was being sorted and potential potato defects were being tossed into a separate pile. When enough coffee had been sorted through, it was placed in a bucket and moved to the fermentation tank. It was quite cold here (for the tropics), and we were told that total fermentation time was sometimes 18 hours of dry fermentation or slightly longer before the final washing.
No coffee was wasted here, however. Even the broken or rejected beans were kept and dried mechanically. Weather permitting, the mechanical dryers were used only for this lowest grade coffee. All other coffee was set out on the tables to dry in a slower fashion. Even so, the heat was always kept below 50C during drying.
Moving on to their dry mill, Azarias showed us the workings of all their milling machines, which were kept immaculately clean. Foreign matter removal, destoning, screen size separation, density, and final hand-sorting are done here, and every square inch of the space is being utilized. In fact, they’re currently expanding their dry milling facility to include about 1500 more square feet of space for storage and sorting.
This cooperative is deeply involved with their community. One aspect of their work blew my mind, and it wasn’t about coffee at all. Their premiere community program is providing cooperative members with baby calves to raise and to breed, free of cost. Beyond being a financial gift, this is a traditional gesture of friendship and peace between Rwandan people. Especially after the Genocide, it became important to show appreciation for one another at every opportunity, and members were encouraged to re-gift the offspring of their cattle to another neighbor who didn’t yet have cattle. Spreading wealth and goodwill to the community through cattle wasn’t something I would have thought of immediately! Furthermore, members are encouraged to sell their milk back to the cooperative, where it is made into yogurt to sell in Kigali, leading to yet more returns for the cooperative and its members. Truly an elegant solution. They also had some pretty snazzy uniforms:
As of this year, Dukundekawa is Certified Organic, and the quality continues to be stellar. It’s hard to quantify the sort of feeling I got visiting this washing station. While it was clearly a large operation, I still felt comfortable here. This was clearly a close-knit community, and I felt the warmth in my interactions with all the people here. I’ve even kept in touch with Azarias via WhatsApp!
Back in Kigali
Our last dinner with the entire crew was at a barbecue spot, where we were treated to expertly roasted lamb and chicken. Pili-pili hot sauce was plentiful, and the smoky heat complemented the meal perfectly. The group parted ways with full hearts and full stomachs, and our gracious hosts Inyoung Anna Kim and Josee Ntugane bid us farewell.
Our faithful drivers joined us for the final meal and hearing their perspective on the Sub-Saharan East African community was telling. As drivers, they have had the opportunity to be rather cosmopolitan – they hailed from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. One of them, Pierre, had a peculiar turn of phrase that stuck with me: “Imagine.” As in: “Did you see the way that truck cut us off? Imagine.”
The new generation in this area of the world is exercising its agency, and they are swiftly becoming leaders in the African community. New beginnings, with any luck, allow people to imagine a better future. And in the best possible way, I hope they do just that: Imagine.
On a more solemn note, if you ever visit Kigali, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. This was my final stop and last impression of Rwanda. It’s safe to say that it’s hard to have a full understanding of the complexity of the social situation in this country, especially after visiting this memorial. In retrospect it would have been the best place to start the journey, in order to give a clear perspective from the outset.
While short trips like this one do a lot to enhance the understanding of the coffee industry in the country visited, I know that a comprehensive understanding of these countries and their coffee industry would take years to gain. The social and cultural depth of Rwanda and Burundi, two of the most densely populated countries in the world, cannot be overstated.
We always look forward to receiving coffees from this region, as they get better year after year – delicious and tropical with a distinctive East African flavor. You can find some of the coffees I mention above in the links below. These coffees will continue to come in from late December into late January. Keep your eyes out, as these selections go quickly!
Full Size Bags: