History of coffee in Burundi

Colonialism in Burundi

The Kingdom of Burundi (also known as the Kingdom of Urundi) was created in the early 17th century and was ruled by a monarch. The king held the title of Mwami. European missionaries and explorers arrived in 1856 and from the late 19th century until its independence in 1962, Burundi was tossed around like a hot potato by various European entities, including Germany, Belgium and the League of Nations. In 1899, Burundi became part ofGerman East Africa despite the efforts of King Mwezi IV Gisabo to resist European influence. In 1916, theBelgian army occupied the territory of Rwanda-Urundi (which included current Burundi). During World War I in 1922, the League of Nations assigned the territory to Belgium. There were 3 main races in Burundi: Hutu (80%), Tutsi (20%), and Twa (Pygmy people, 1%). Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language, share many cultural characteristics, and traditional differences are working: the Hutu were often farmers and the Tutsi were mostly cattle herders.

The arrival of coffee in Burundi

Coffee then came to Burundi in the 1920s under Belgian colonial rule, and from 1933 each peasant (mostly Hutu) had to grow at least 50 coffee trees. In the same year, the Belgian colonial government exacerbated racial tensions between Hutu and Tutsi by requiring Burundians to have a tribal ethnicity identification card. Several droughts in the early 1940s, which eventually led to the Ruzagayura famine of 1943-1944, caused an estimated 1/3 to 1/5 of Burundi' s population to die and a large migration of Burundians to the neighboring Belgian Congo. This further escalated racial tensions between Hutus and Tutsis.


When Burundi gained full independence in 1962, coffee production went private. This changed again in 1972. In 1972, an uprising in Burundi by the Hutu people against the Tutsi-dominated government turned into a massacre. The Tutsi-dominated Burundian army carried out a genocide, killing more than 200,000 Hutus (mostly educated, especially those who wear glasses) and dispossessing more than 300,000 Hutus. In 1976, the state took control of all coffee fields and production, and both quality and quantity plummeted. Coffee began to return to the private sector after the first Hutu president , Melchoir Ndadaya, was elected in 1993, but the recovery was almost halted by his assassination three months after he was sworn into office. In retaliation, Hutu peasants began killing Tutsis, leading to a decade of ethical conflict and civil war, but the country also continued to retaliate back to private small-scale coffee owners.

The peace agreement

Apeace agreement was signed in 2003, and in 2005 Pierre Nkurunziza, the formal leader of the Hutu rebels, was elected president of Burundi. Since then, efforts have been made to increase the production and value of coffee in Burundi. Investment in the sector is considered crucial as the Burundian economy has been shaken by the conflict. In 2011, Burundi had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world, with 90% of the population relying on coffee for their livelihoods.

Coffee and tea exports together account for around 40% of total foreign exchange earnings (coffee is 23%, tea is 16%, gold exports are around 23%). Coffee production is recovering but has not yet reached the levels of the early 1980s. After years of conflict, there are no coffee farms in Burundi. Meanwhile, there are 600,000-800,000 coffee farmers (mostly small-scale, with an average plot size of 0.12 hectares and 200 trees) responsible for the crop. Recently, these producers have become more organized, usually clustered around one of the 283 washing stations (as of 2018) and 8 dry mills in the country.

Prior to 2008, most of the washing stations were state-owned, but a World Bank project in 2008 led to the privatization of the coffee sector in Burundi, allowing private companies and cooperatives to own the washing stations and dry mills previously owned by the state. Currently, 1/3 of these washing stations are privately owned. Within each region, these stations aregrouped into SOGESTALs (Société de Gestion des Stations de Lavage), which are effectively managed by organisations for groups of washing stations. Quality development has been channelled through these organisations in recent years. The Coffee Competitiveness Project, launched in 2016 and funded by the World Bank, improved production by more than 15% between 2016 and 2018 by providing farmers with subsidies for fertilizers and insecticides, grants for bicycles, training and motorcycles and vehicles for agriculture.


Burundi's geography is well suited to coffee. It is mostly mountains that provide the necessary altitude (1200-2000 meters) and climate. The harvest usually takes place from March to July. Burundi coffees are fully washed and usually consist of the Bourbon variety, although other varieties are also grown. In many ways, there are similarities between Burundi and its neighbour Rwanda: the countries have similar altitudes and different coffee varieties, and both face challenges of inland production, which can hinder the rapid exports necessary to ensure that raw coffee reaches consuming countries in good condition. As in Rwanda, Burundi's coffees are also susceptible to potato blight.

Processing and trade

Washing stations and drying mills are concentrated in the northern and central provinces. Until recently, coffees from all washing stations in each SOGESTAL were blended together. This meant that coffee exported from Burundi could be traced back to their SOGESTAL, which is indeed their region of origin.

Selected coffees

In 2008, Burundi began to embrace the selective coffee sector , allowing for more direct and traceable purchases. Burundi also embraces a unique washed process that "double ferments / double washes" their coffees. During this process, the cherry is first floated in a bucket or concrete tank to get rid of unripe coffee (which are called "floaters"). The cherry is then peeled and dry fermented for 12-24 hours where it sits in the tank. This is followed by washing in the canals (with different quality coffees in different tanks based on density). Finally, it will be fermented/soaked for another 12 hours before being placed on raised beds for sorting and drying for another 10-20 days depending on the weather. This extraordinary effort results in exceptionally clean and tasty cups. Since 2011, a coffee quality competition called the Prestige Cup has been held in Burundi. It is the predecessor of the established Cup of Excellence. Batches from each washing station were kept separate and judged on quality, then sold at auction with their traceability intact.

Burundi is fast gaining a reputation for producing excellent coffee. Burundi coffees offer bright stone fruit notes, juicy acidity and silky body.