Burundi’s finest specialty coffee
There are 1,802 smallholders living around Gasorwe, Burundi who deliver their cherry to Ngogomo Central Washing Station (CWS). In addition to operating nine washing stations in Burundi and processing excellent coffee, Bugestal is also working with communities to increase farmer livelihoods and general equality in coffee producing areas.
The History of Ngogomo CWS
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 location where the station is located today. When the fish disappeared, the fisherman, unable to find a reason or solution to the problem of the disappearing fish, 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 cherry. Many of the neighbors of the farmer–turned–fisherman 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.
Ngogomo CWS 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 CWS 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 1,500 metric tonnes of cherry each season.
The processing season runs from April to June. Ngogomo CWS also participates in a number of farmer outreach and support projects include a goat and pig project, Farmer Hub, strengthening cooperatives and distributing fertilizer and coffee trees.
All coffee trees in Burundi are Red Bourbon, which is tightly controlled by the government for reasons of quality. Because of the increasingly small size of coffee plantings, aging rootstock is a very big 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 at or below cost. In 2018, their first year growing seedlings, Ngogomo CWS produced 72,377 seedlings.
Despite the ubiquity of coffee growing in Burundi, each smallholder producers 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 cherry so the average producer sells about 200-300 kilos of cherry annually.
Harvest & Post-harvest
Before Bugestal erected the washing station, farmers and their families de-pulped cherries at home. The labour required was significant. Ngogomo CWS saves families valuable time while offering good prices for their cherry.
The average cherry buying price for Bugestal in 2019 was significantly above average. CWSs make the first payment to farmers between 15-30 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.
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. Bugestal knows that even small distances can be time consuming and expensive to travel for smallholder farmers, and they know that receiving cherry 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 growing areas.
Farmers are paid the same for their quality cherry regardless of where they bring their cherries. In this way, farmers are not disadvantaged due to their location, and Bugestal bears the cost of transport to CWS’s.
Quality is the objective
Approximately 70% of the total coffee yield in Burundi is processed as fully washed, like this lot. Quality assurance begins as soon as farmers deliver their cherry.
All cherry is floated in small buckets as a first step to check its quality. Bugestal still purchases floaters (damaged, underripe, etc) but immediately separates the two qualities and only markets floaters as B-quality cherry.
After floating, the higher quality cherry is sorted again by hand to remove all damaged, underripe and overripe cherries.
After sorting, cherry is de-pulped within 6 hours of delivery. During pulping, cherry is separated into high and low grade by density on a Mackinon 3-disc pulper outfitted with an additional separation disk.
The coffee is then fermented in water from a nearby stream for 10-12 hours, depending on ambient temperature. Trained agronomists check the beans by hand regularly to ensure fermentation is halted at the perfect time.
After fermentation is completed, coffee is run through washing and grading canals. As the beans flow through, wooden bars that are laid across the canal prevent beans of specific densities from passing through. These bars are 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 to the 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 (which are separated by station, day and quality) 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 mill produces an average of 300 containers of 320 bags per year. Budeca is located in Burundi’s new capital city, Gitega, 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.
Coffee in Burundi
Coffee arrived in Burundi during the 1940s with the Belgian colonial government.
The Belgian government, which oversaw and administered to the twin territory of Ruanda-Burundi between 1922 and 1962, made coffee growing mandatory during their rule. When the Belgian government withdrew, many stopped tending their trees because it was no longer compulsory.
However, many also saw the economic advantages of continuing to grow coffee, and the industry became central to Burundi’s national economy.
The coffee industry in Burundi remained in the public sector until the start of the 21st century, when the government privatized some elements of the coffee chain. As a result of this relatively recent change, there are very few foreign companies involved in Burundi’s coffee sector.
Today, Burundi’s coffee industry is fueled by the 2 million smallholders producing more than 80% of the country’s total coffee export.
To put this number in perspective, consider that the entire population of Burundi is only a little under 11 million people, so smallholder coffee producers comprise nearly a fifth of the total population.
As Carlos Bobillo Barbeito, Managing Director at Greenco & Bugestal in Burundi says, “The country lives off coffee; everyone has someone who lives off coffee…It’s the backbone of the economy.”
All coffee trees in Burundi are Arabica. There was an attempt to introduce Robusta into Burundi with the establishment of a large plantation. The plantation was destroyed during a civil war and unrest near the end of the 20th century.
Bugestal’s headquarters are located in 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.
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.