There’s no question that we’re passionate about coffee: It’s what we live and breathe every day, and it fills every conversation and every dream we have around our offices day in and day out. It’s easy to forget, however, that one of the other things we’re passionate about are the behind-the-scenes details—like documentation and shipping—that help us arrange purchase, shipment, and subsequent sale of some of the best and brightest coffees around the globe. There are some coffee-growing places that remind us more than others that we are a logistics company just about as much as we’re a high-quality-coffee company, and Burundi is one of them.
Of course there is a lot to be waxed romantic about in Burundi: the rolling hills, the local passion for art and music, the shores of beautiful Lake Tanganyika, and naturally the coffees themselves, with their complex and vibrant profiles. However, sometimes in coffee the most authentic stories are also the least-romantic ones—the ones that have to do with politics, procedure, volume prediction, or simply trying to get a truck from point A to point B.
This year, green-coffee buyer Claudia Bellinzoni spent her entire visit to Burundi at the cupping table—both at the Cup of Excellence competition, where she was an international judge, and with our partners at Sogestal Kayanza, from whom Cafe Imports has bought the vast majority of our microlots from the country for the past decade-plus. Even though she didn’t go out to visit any of the washing stations or farms doesn’t mean she wasn’t doing some of the hardest work in coffee: relationship building.
“You have to have a personal relationship,” Claudia said after her trip to Burundi last year. That personal relationship is absolutely key, and there’s no way to overstate how difficult it can be as a buyer to maintain a strong positive relationship with an export partner at such a great physical, linguistic, and technological distance. “They don’t really work on computers or phones,” which makes it a bit complicated to keep up a connection and to arrange logistics at a distance: Burundi is one of the least telephone-dense countries on earth, and access to the Internet is limited as well as less culturally relevant. Anyone who’s met Claudia won’t be surprised to hear that she’s managed to maintain a strong bond, though: She’s meticulous, generous, kind, and committed to keeping up with her contacts. “They really look to develop more and more a relationship with us,” she reflects after this year’s time with Claude Nzambimana, the director-general of Sogestal Kayanza. “You can really see it: When we go there, they are happy to see us.”
“Sogestal” stands for “Société de Gestion des Stations de Dépulpage Lavage,” which translates to “management company of pulping stations,” and generally refers to a collection of washing stations that serve various hyperlocal areas within the country’s several recognized coffee-producing regions. Sogestals have been both government-operated and privatized, and today they tend to be a mix or hybrid of both. Since 2006, Cafe Imports has focused primarily on Sogestal Kayanza, a collection of 21 washing stations that has always delivered on quality, even if the logistics of actual delivery are sometimes tricky.
“We really did a lot of work with our logistics partner for FOT shipments, to get the coffee out as soon as possible,” Claudia says. Because Burundi is landlocked, the majority of the coffee is traded as FOT, or free on truck, which means that it needs to first be driven to a container port before it can leave the continent. This extra step can lengthen shipping considerably, as the coffee is then at the mercy of traffic, flat tires, highway obstruction, border conflicts, domestic political tension—you name it. Ideally, the coffee arrives in November, just before American Thanksgiving. (Fingers and toes crossed.) This logistical difficulty isn’t unique to Burundi—Rwanda and Congo are both in the same boat, er, on the same truck—but compounded with the fact that roasters seem to fall in and out of love with Burundi’s offerings every year, it can be an especially complicated place in which to source.
We’re especially anxious to receive it this year, however, because Sogestal Kayanza’s entries performed exceptionally well in the Cup of Excellence, taking 2nd and 3rd place, as well as 8th, 9th, and a few other spots in the contest. “I love Burundi coffee: It’s super chocolatey with good body, incredibly smooth,” Claudia says, describing the profile she’s hunting when she tastes through samples both at the CoE and for her Cafe Imports selections. “Then you have this orange, and super floral at the same time. Not like jasmine, not like Yirgacheffe—like a mix of flowers, all types. Super fruity with some tropical notes like guava, mango. I always look for something that has a really long and round finish.”
The washing station whose coffee took the silver medal, Gitwenge, is one of our annual buys, bursting with citrus and florals like chamomile, as well as sugar cane and spice flavors. Gitwenge serves more than 2,500 smallholder farmers in the area around Gatare in Kayanza—each owns less than half a hectare of land on which to grow not just coffee, but also bananas, beans, yams, and other crops that the family will both use and sell for extra cash.
The large number of farmers with their very small individual yields is another reason logistics here are especially complex: Each grower brings his or her cherries to the washing station to be sorted, weighed, and blended together to create lots that will be processed by the Sogestal. Producers are paid by weight and given the going market rate for their delivery, but the way the receipt and production system is set up at each mill, it’s impossible to know precisely whose coffee goes into which piles and, eventually, into each bag. That means that incentivizing quality and paying higher prices for better cup scores is incredibly difficult, if not currently unfathomable.
“We are trying to build up a project,” Claudia explains, an attempt to partner with certain washing stations to pay higher prices for quality—but it’s unfortunately not that easy. “They say even the idea of creating this project can create chaos between farmers,” she says. While that level of traceability isn’t feasible right now, she does say that in her experience, “You can really tell, if people are happy or if there are struggles. It’s very much dependent at this point on the relationship, and knowing how happy people are when you see them. Through some investigations, also, I found out that we are buying from people who are reliable and pay the highest amounts.” While naturally we would like more specific reassurance, that too is difficult to achieve under the current system—around which there are very few alternative options.
For now, relationship-building is a main focus and Claudia will continue to travel to Burundi at least once a year to cup samples, spend quality time with Claude and the Sogestal Kayanza team, and develop and explore other relationships as they appear.
We’d love to hear about your relationship with Burundi’s beautiful coffees, and to find you the perfect match for your offerings for this year and beyond.