Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part IV

Our esteemed VP of Sales, Marketing, and seemingly everything else, John Moore, flew last week to Burundi’s first-ever Cup of Excellence competition. We at Dallis, and particularly John, have been proud to support and participate in Cup of Excellence competitions across the world, both for the benefit they bring to the industry by recognizing truly great coffees, and — more importantly — for the actual financial benefit this recognition can bring to farms, particularly those in economically troubled countries. Burundi’s first competition, and John’s first trip to Burundi, are momentous to us. We share here his last of four trip diaries.

Traditional dancers at the Burundi Cup of Excellence awards ceremony. Photo by John Moore.

Day Five: Last Day at CoE

The last day at CoE is when we rank the top 10. These are coffees that have already made is as “winners”, and the final day determines where precisely they rank in the eyes of the jury. It is important to note that the number one coffee doesn’t always fetch the highest sum, but that is most often the case. I love the last day because it is less about critiquing, and more about celebrating the coffees.

It was so sad to see two of the final top 10 finalists kicked out for potato defect. It appears as though about 28% – 30% of the samples submitted ended up killed by potato, and I think that these figures will help push the government to help support initiatives to get to the bottom of this scourge.

After the morning of cupping we had some time in small focus groups with Burundian producers. This was incredibly valuable time since we got to ask them questions and then they got to ask us questions as well. It was great to hear directly from producers and washing station managers what they are doing and how they are doing it to continue improving quality.

As is always the case, financing and price conversations filled the air. At one point they were suggesting that roasters finance the coffee before it is picked. Our group was quick to push back to the financial institutions and government agencies within Burundi. The problem is the same everywhere it seems — cash-strapped producers end up selling cherry to middle men as opposed to delivering to a washing station because middle men offer immediate cash. Liquidity matters, and cash is king.

The lead figure from the government agency responsible specifically for this topic happened to be sitting in on our group session, and it was extremely interesting to watch the exchange between ourselves as international jury members, the producers, the washing station managers, the representative for the collective of producers, and Evereste, the government official. If he is to be believed, they are working towards solutions, but these are complicated and take time.

Then it was off to the awards ceremony. This is always a mixture of song, dance, expression of local culture, a seemingly endless stream of speeches, and then at last producers get their certificates and awards. It is at that moment people find out whether or not their lots made it as Cup of Excellence winners, and further still whether or not they made it into the even further elite top 10.

I have to say, this competition the speeches really had a sense of urgency to them. The representative for Burundi Coffee Growers Confederation was the first to take the mic, and he wasted little time in rattling off a list of programs that he and his constituents clearly wanted the Minister of Agriculture and Livestock to hear. When asking for a more appropriate allocation of funds for fertilizer he said, “the yield of the cow depends on the food for the cow”. He was quick to point out just how much “food” went to the producers in Kenya versus what they have received in Burundi.

We also heard from Adrien Sibomana who had spent quite a bit of time with us over the week. Adrien is a phenomenal individual, and was the prime minister of Burundi from 1988 until 1993. He was the first ethnic Hutu appointed to a high government post following the civil war, and previously had been governor of Muramvya Province. He said “Most important thing is the quality of the coffee. Quality has improved, so hopefully the price will improve. Nevertheless, we still have a lot of work to do”. It seems the Burundians understand very well that they will never be a big quantity producer, but they have a tremendous opportunity to be a big quality producer. In an effort to illustrate what quality means Adrien is coordinating a cupping of the all the CoE winners that will be open to anyone that wants to attend next week. I thought that was a really cool idea since all too often we ask producers to create qualities that they don’t know themselves or understand since they don’t cup their own coffees!

Presidential Award winner. Photo by John Moore.

There was so much commotion around the top 10 this year. There were 3 Presidential Awards given, meaning that the jury gave 3 coffees 90+ scores. This is not typical, especially considering that it was Burundi’s first competition. Also, Paul Songer and Grant both mentioned that our group was not exactly a bunch of push-overs. There were under 20 “winners”, and we were brutally honest with defective coffees and with our allocation of scores in general. When the winners got off the stage it was as if the Beatles were landing at JFK. Everyone swarmed around the 3 Presidential Award winners with cameras — it must have been amazing for these winners!

It was great to hear Grant Rattray summing up some of ACE / CoE’s goals in his closing comments. Last year during the Golden Cup preparatory competition they hit a $4 average for the winning lots. Grant is hopeful that they will push that to $7 on average for this auction. Last year the program generated about $118,000 in revenue, and this year they are hoping to hit to over $400,000. This year they had input from over 30% of the washing stations. Next year Grant is hopeful that they can achieve a “perfect competition” in which all washing stations are represented. Again, imagine what this means to the 650,000 or so producers in Burundi that make an average of $200 per year.

The nice thing about Burundi is that it is so small you can dream big. Cup of Excellence has become an important part of my coffee experience, and I’m proud of the association between Dallis and CoE. Leaving Burundi I have a feeling like we can really create win-win relationships here, where producers that are investing in quality can be rewarded, and we can in turn re-sell top quality coffees to our clients and so on. I left early (now yesterday) and as the sun was coming up I noticed the street kids waking and people bathing in the lake. It struck me how far Burundi has come, how far there is yet to go, and how much we can be a partner in this if we choose to be.

Appropriately enough as we were going through the security gate to the airport (late of course) my taxi completely broke down. There we were — myself, two security guys, a taxi driver, and a porter all pushing this van through the check so that my taxi guy and I could walk the rest of the way to the airport with my stuff. It seemed somehow the perfect way to leave Burundi, and with a big “mwarakozi” (thank you) I was off into the sunrise.