Welcome to our 7th year buying coffees with the Long Miles Coffee Project in Burundi. I wanted to take a moment to rewind the clock and shed some light on our history with these producers and to share where we plan to grow in the future.
So back in 2011, while I was doing a volunteer stint with USAID in Rwanda, I happened into a cupping event in Burundi where I met Long Miles founder, Ben Carlson.
Ben had been working in Burundi for almost a year as a consultant for a company called Shluter. Shluter, a Belgian Commodities company, was the first to go to Burundi after the civil war ended and the coffee sector was privatized.
Just to be clear, Burundi started producing fully washed coffees in the 1960’s from government owned washing stations called Sogestals. The government set up Sogestals in villages throughout Burundi that met the primary conditions for growing coffee, which was grown, processed, and exported primarily for the Belgian Coffee Market.
Burundi used to be a colony of Germany, then Belgium, and there is a long, ugly history with Europeans that you should read up on when you have a chance. The country gained independence in the 1960’s, originally forming a Monarchy, then a democracy. The Monarchy was comprised by people who only made up roughly 15% of the population, known as the Tutsi, and this led to slow resentment and ethnic genocide of the Hutu. By 1994, Burundi spilled into an all out Civil War which lasted till 2005.
It took another 5 years for the country to slowly emerge from the chaos of war. In 2010, the coffee sector was officially privatized and production and export slowly grew.
Back to Olympia Coffee’s first trip to Burundi in 2011: Seeing the potential in Burundi, Ben Carlson and I dreamed up the slogan Coffee People Potential. We invested a lot into this project and we even made a short film about it in 2013, titled Coffee, People, Potential.
Ben left his job with Shluter and bought a parcel on Gaharo Hill just outside of the village called Bukeye. The land was purchased, if I remember correctly, in early 2012, but construction of the Bukeye Washing Station didn’t start till May, right in the middle of the harvest season. Bukeye opened so late into the harvest that they were only able to buy and process about 4,000 lbs of coffee.
That first harvest from Long Miles Coffee was rough in so many ways. The water pump was not finished and the Long Miles team had to carry water from the creek to process the coffee. The fact that the creek water was dirty didn’t do much to help quality. But that first year, Olympia Coffee became the first roaster to purchase from the Long Miles Coffee Project. We purchased 10 bags from Gaharo Hill in total and it was honestly our worst coffee in 2012.
By July of 2012 I was back in Burundi on the jury for the first ever Burundi Cup of Excellence. Burundi’s future in coffee looked bright and we believed in it, so we kept going and committed to buying more coffee with Long Miles.
There have been a lot of troubles over the years and we’ve cried over the struggles that our friends the Carlson family have had in Burundi, but we have been there to celebrate the successes as well. One memory that lives with me is the 2014 Atlanta SCAA conference where our Burundi Mikuba lot placed second in the USA. It moved me to think that in just 3 years this coffee from Mikuba Hill that had previously been harvested, processed, and sold to some random commercial roaster – most likely at the lowest prices possible – was now being bought and sold at a premium and celebrated at such a high level.
In the last 7 years working with the Long Miles Coffee Project, we have seen the lives of hundreds of farmers improve. Farmers now see coffee as a benefit economically to their lives: they send their children to school with coffee money, buy livestock, expand their farms, and build their own small businesses. I’m proud to say we have been there from day one with the dream to improve the lives of coffee farmers in Burundi.