The story of coffee production on Ngogomo hill begins with a fisherman. The fisherman had made his livelihood catching fish in a stream near the area where the washing station is located today. When the fish in the lakes suddenly disappeared, the fisherman, unable to find a reason or solution to the problem, switched to coffee farming. Coffee farming proved to be a more stable profession, especially considering the ideal climate and soil composition, which produced high quality coffee cherries. Many of the neighbors of the decided to follow suit and began farming their own coffee trees. The successful story of his coffee plants and the good quality of the cherries around the area meant that the people living nearby also started to grow coffee trees.
Today, Ngogomo is one of the main stations in the province of Muyinga. It was constructed in 1992 and today serves more than 1,800 farmers on 18 hills. The station is overseen by sustainability and station manager Severin Nizigiyimana. With 10 fermentation tanks, 3 soaking tanks, 258 drying tables, 4 selection tables and 10 floating tanks the station can process up to 1,500ne metric tons of cherries each season, where the processing season runs from April to June.
The station also participates in a number of farmer outreach-and support projects, strengthening cooperatives and distributing fertilizer and coffee trees.
Red Bourbon is one of the most common variety used in Burundi. Because of the increasingly small size of coffee plantings, aging rootstock is a grave issue in Burundi. Many farmers have trees that are over 50 years old, but with small plots to farm, it is difficult to justify taking trees entirely out of production for the 3-4 years it will take new plantings to begin to yield. In order to encourage farmers to renovate their plantings, Bugestal purchases seeds from the Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Burundi (ISABU), establishes nurseries and sells the seedlings to farmers below cost. In 2018, their first year growing seedlings, Ngogomo station produced 72,377 seedlings.
Despite the ubiquity of coffee growing in Burundi, each smallholder produces a relatively small harvest. The average smallholder has approximately 250 trees, normally in their backyards. Each tree yields an average of 1.5 kilos of cherries so the average producer sells about 200-300 kilos of cherries annually.
Harvest, Post-Harvest & Quality Control
During the harvest season, all coffee is selectively hand-picked. Most families only have 200 to 250 trees, and harvesting is done almost entirely by the family. Even small distances can be time consuming and expensive to travel for smallholder farmers, yet receiving the cherries immediately after harvest is crucial to quality. Therefore, smallholders can bring their cherries either directly to a central washing station (CWS) or to one of the 10-15 collection sites situated throughout the growing areas. Farmers are paid the same for their cherries regardless of where they bring them. In this way, farmers are not disadvantaged by their location, and Bugestal bears the cost of transport to CWS’s.
Approximately 70% of the total coffee yield in Burundi is processed as fully washed, like this lot, and quality assurance begins as soon as farmers deliver their cherries. All the cherries are placed in small buckets as a first step to check its quality for “floaters”, a coffee defect describing low density or under-ripe beans. Bugestal still purchases floaters but immediately separates the two qualities and only markets floaters as a B-quality cherry. After floating, the higher quality cherry is sorted again by hand to remove all damaged, unnoticed under-ripe or overripe cherries.
After sorting, the cherries are de-pulped within 6 hours of delivery. During pulping, they are separated into high- and low-grade by density and subsequently fermented in water from a nearby stream for 10-12 hours, depending on temperature. Trained agronomists check the beans by hand regularly to ensure that fermentation is halted at the perfect time.
After the fermentation process is completed, coffee is run through washing and grading canals. As the beans flow through, wooden bars that are laid across the canal to prevent beans of specific densities from passing through. These bars are then spaced across the channel. While the first blockade stops the most-dense beans, the next is arranged to stop the second most-dense beans and so on. In total, the channel separates beans into seven grades according to density.
The beans are then transported over to drying tables where they will dry slowly for 2-3 weeks. Pickers go over the drying beans for damaged or defective beans that may have been missed in previous quality checks. The beans are covered with tarps during periods of rain, the hottest part of the day and at night. On the table, the beans are dried to 11.5%.
Once dry, the parchment coffee is then bagged and taken to the warehouse. Bugestal’s team of expert cuppers assess every lot at the lab. The traceability of the station, day and quality is maintained throughout the entire process.
Before shipment, coffee is sent to Budeca, Burundi’s largest dry mill. The coffee is milled and then hand sorted by a team of hand-pickers who look closely at every single bean to ensure zero defects. It takes a team of two hand-pickers a full day to look over a single bag. UV lighting is also used on the beans and any beans that glows—usually an indication of a defect—is removed.
The average cherry buying price for Bugestal in 2019 was significantly above average. Stations make the first payment to farmers between 15th-30th June. The second payment comes later in the summer. If the coffee wins a competition or sells for extremely high specialty prices, Bugestal gives another payment approximately a year after the harvest season.
The mill produces an average of 300 containers of 320 bags per year. The mill is located in the Gitega, the new capital, with a population of around 30,000 people. Since there are approximately 3,000 people working at the mill, mostly as hand pickers, this means that Budeca employs nearly 10% of the total population in Gitega for at least half the year (during the milling season). The same is true in the provinces of Ngozi and Kayanza, where Greenco and Bugestal are the first employers in the region during the coffee harvest season. This has an incalculable impact on a country like Burundi, with unemployment rates above 50%, especially in rural areas and among young people.
Bugestal’s headquarters are located in the Ngozi Province in the Northern part of Burundi, approximately 150km from Bujumbura, the largest city and previously the capital of Burundi. Bugestal operates nine washing stations in Ngozi and Muyinga provinces and works with more than 15,000 farmers. Coffee washing stations are all certified by UTZ, 4C and C.A.F.E. practices. Bugestal is part of the Sucafina Group, a family owned coffee company promoting farm-to-roaster trade. Bugestal creates social impact at origin using farm-direct supply chains and works in collaboration with the Kahawatu Foundation to help farmers improve their livelihoods through the increase of coffee production.
Coffee in Burundi
Burundi has long been overlooked in comparison to its neighboring East African specialty coffee producing powerhouses. However, Burundi season is one of the highlights of the annual coffee calendar. The country’s coffee is produced almost entirely by smallholder farmers, and much of this small-scale production is of exceptional quality. With its super sweet, clean and often floral coffees, Burundi, every year, is increasingly putting itself on the specialty coffee map.
Coffee is of paramount importance to families and the country at large. Considering this, improving and expanding coffee infrastructure is not just a way to improve incomes, it is a way to revolutionize the earning potential of an entire nation.
Building washing stations and expanding agricultural extension work can be great ways to improve coffee quality. Washing stations are pivotal in improving cup profile standards and the global reputation of Burundian coffee.
Both state-owned and private actors drive Burundi’s coffee industry and play key roles as washing station management companies and exporters. State-owned companies are called Sogestals, short for “Sociétés de Gestions des Stations de Lavage” (Washing station management companies). Privately-owned companies can operate under a variety of different names.