We are not going to tell you that everything is hunky-dory in Ethiopia, that everything is perfect, that the coffee farmers are happy, or that the future is bright, because that is certainly not true. While there have been improvements in the humanitarian situation caused by the war, the economic and climatic situation is only getting worse. Temperatures are rising and rainfall is falling in a pattern that could lead to a 25% drop in production by 2030, and inflation is hitting hard, reaching 34% per annum last December.
For a coffee importer, (I think we all share the same opinion) Ethiopia is the most challenging origin, but at the same time the most rewarding in terms of travel experience and coffee quality. Quality is part of the establishment, from a genetic and terroir perspective Ethiopia is always expected to have unique, complex and intense cup profiles, but there are problems related to human intervention that do not allow these high expectations to be realised.
Why would you prefer one over the other, if they are only separated by an imaginary border? A coffee grown in northern Burundi has exactly the same microclimate, varietal, process and terroir as one from southern Rwanda. There is no difference other than the name of the origin until this point of the production process, although there are many differences in various aspects.
Both economies are overwhelmingly agricultural, and widely diversified farming is practiced throughout their territories. Arabica coffee is the main commercial crop and constitutes the main export of both countries. Being much more important in terms of total foreign exchange earnings for Burundi than for Rwanda, because the latter economy is more developed and diversified.
We often think that Burundi is not talked about enough in the specialty coffee industry, and at Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffees we want to change that idea and give this wonderful country and origin, which produces some of the best coffees in the world, the place that it deserves, on the African podium alongside Kenya and Ethiopia.
One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is landlocked and has an equatorial climate. Burundi is part of the Albertine Rift, the western extension of the East African Rift. This is important because the soils of the Rift Valley are volcanic and very fertile. Its cultivation areas are characterized by producing a cup with intense phosphoric acidity, full body with some fruity notes and complex flavour.
Our industry often forgets how important small farmers are to the work we all do every day. We can verify this every time we meet at events like the last World of Coffee in Milan, where the focus is mostly on competitions, machinery, influencers, but apparently no one realizes that without small coffee growers none of this would be possible, and they keep being ignored as they have been for 400 years.
The current times are stormy, for no one in the world it should be a mystery that climate change is affecting our lives in a radical way. To no one either, it should be a mystery that inflation is hitting the pockets of the world's poorest people, and this particularly impacts coffee farmers who, despite record coffee prices, have not seen their income levels improve. Finally, due to the war in Ukraine, the shortage of fertilizers could cause a deficit of almost 20% in coffee production in 2022, in addition to the food crisis that it is already affecting various parts of Africa.
Coffee is a biennial cycle crop, which means that coffee trees have high productivity in one harvest and low production in the next, due to the plant's need for recomposition. This phenomenon has a greater influence on coffee of the Arabica species, and a greater economic impact on those origins that have only one harvest a year, as is the case in Ethiopia.
During the 2022 harvest in Ethiopia, production was affected by a negative biennial cycle, where flowering decreased due to the need of the plant to recompose itself after a very productive period last harvest 2021.
Things are changing for the better in Kenya, the average price of coffee cherries has increased from USD 0.45 per kg of cherry in 2016/2017 to USD 0.80 per kg of cherry in the year 2020/2021, a 78% grow! But what has happened in the year 2021/2022?
According to information from the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCI), coffee production increased by 64% in the 2021/2022 harvest, compared to the previous year, and income increased by 90% in the same period. This is the result of a lower supply to the global market, because in Brazil, the harsh weather conditions caused up to 20% of the entire harvest to be lost in the last season. And in Ethiopia, the world's fifth largest producer, agricultural activities have been interrupted by the conflict between the government and the militia in the Tigray region.
The good news about Uganda is that there is great potential. Probably you have heard this many times, and I am sure that nobody reading this article, has ever cupped an outstanding Ugandan lot.
So, where is all that potential when it comes to cupping?
It is always important to remember that just 27 years ago, Rwanda was in the midst of one of the most horrible tragedies humanity has ever seen. The genocide against the Tutsi population killed almost a million people and displaced two million more. These events shook this small country and almost wiped out the entire coffee industry.
Remarkably since then, Rwanda has enjoyed strong rates of economic growth, creating new business prospects and lifting many people out of poverty. Thanks to an efficient government actively working to develop the economy and reform the financial and business sectors, Rwandan coffee has become a very important player, contributing significantly to foreign exchange earnings and the monetization of the rural economy. In 2019, agriculture accounted for 29% of Rwanda's economy, and coffee accounted for a third of this income, with 75% of the total population working in the agricultural sector.
Cupping coffees without having any origin info, would be nonsense, right? We can't understand a coffee if we do not know its origin and to really know an origin, we must first try to understand its culture, read its history, listen to its music and observe the state of its political system. There's no other way.
It is the same with many other situations in life, everything is a consequence of something anterior, a reaction of a previous action. This "Newtonian" plot is everywhere, and no matter how hard we try to untangle it, hits our unsophisticated sense of perception like an apple falling on one’s head, preventing us from understanding its full scope and impact.
Not long ago I was listening on a podcast, to a "celebrity" of the specialty coffee industry, saying that the most difficult country where to work was Kenya. This seemed nonsense to me, because without a doubt, for anyone who has worked in Africa for a sufficient period of time, will say that the most difficult origin to work is undoubtedly Ethiopia, with light years of difference. And with this I am not saying that Kenya is all peaches and cream, because is not, but what I mean is that Ethiopia is too complex.
It should be noted that with this article, I do not intend to establish a cultural superiority on the part of the West to the detriment of the third world, as it is commonly called. I firmly believe that there is no culture superior to another, however they are all different, each with its positive side and its flaws. I do not agree with the kind of superiority that some feel when they come to Africa "advising" how to live, what is the best solution to problems, and even how to grow and process coffee. Africa must find its own solutions!