I am learning a lot about coffee.
But I'm barely scratching the surface! Coffee is insanely complicated. The process of turning coffee cherries into the stuff you buy in the store? Complicated. The social and technological mechanisms that support it, from washing stations to export auctions? Complicated. The politics, as the coffee growers struggle to organize for a better price, the government courts their votes, and the washers and exporters try to keep afloat? Complicated. Coffee financing? Way complicated -- much more so than for most agricultural crops. And it's more complicated in Burundi than in most places, because Burundi has 700,000 small coffee farmers, most farming a mixture of coffee bushes and food crops on a hectare or less of land.
The coffee sector here is desperately starved for credit. Unfortunately, it also has very limited capacity to attract and absorb credit. For instance:
-- small farmers in Burundi almost never have good title to their land, and so can't use it as security for loans.
-- coffee washing stations are carrying debt from the "crisis" period of low-grade civil war. Since the crisis lasted for a decade or so, the accumulated interest makes these debts pretty much unpayable, but nobody will lend more money to them until it's resolved. The government, donors and local banks are slowly working out a bailout, but it's painfully slow, complicated by politics (the ethnic divide again) and also some really goofy-ass decisions by the donors.
-- Burundian banks aren't making long term loans right now: 80% of their loans are for a year or less. That's partly because the banks themselves don't have access to long-term funds (almost all of their money is coming from demand deposits), and partly because they're still twitchy after years of constant political crisis. So, a loan to expand coffee production by new planting is right out; coffee bushes take three years before they even start producing, and four or five before they're going full blast.
-- For a lot of the small farmers, putting money into coffee production is actually not the highest priority. It may be important for the country, but the individual farmers are often more interested in food crops. Coffee is a cash crop; they use the money to buy stuff at the village store. In fact, by harvest, many of them have run up such a tab that the village commercant ends up owning the whole crop.
It's very nice to have money. But 70% of the population is living below the poverty line, 30% of kids are malnourished, and pretty much everyone has gone hungry at some point. If they could get a loan for fertilizers or tools or seeds, they'd use it on their food crops first. Coffee is important, but it's not what keeps you alive.
-- Burundian agriculture generally is in the tank right now, with productivity painfully low: it's typically a third to 50% lower than in Rwanda or Kenya, and in the case of coffee sometimes even lower. One of the few, the very few positive legacies left by the Belgians was a decent agricultural extension service. After independence, the government slowly improved on this, until by the early 1990s it was one of the best in the region. Then came the civil war.
The extension service was run by Tutsis, like everything else. But the guys who went out in the field and did research, talked to farmers, distributed seed samples and wrote crop reports and all that? Hutus, since all the farmers were Hutus. Hutus in reporting directly back to Tutsis. This made them, in the eyes of the rebel groups, particularly vulnerable symbols of Tutsi rule. Extension officers were killed, extension offices were burned, and by the end of the crisis the extension service had ceased to exist. It hasn't recovered. The World Bank -- this is so fucking stupid it hurts to think about it -- is pushing for a new privatized extension service, an idea so obviously asinine that it would have a sort of transcendant beauty if it wasn't going to produce godawful real-world consequences.
Anyway. Lack of extension services means productivity is staying low; the farmers aren't getting new seeds and aren't learning new techniques, while the other actors -- the state, the banks, exporters, potential investors -- have only vague and general knowledge of what's going on out there. Like, the rains in Gitenga were good this year: okay; but how many hectares were planted this season? with what grades? how many farmers have already hocked their whole crop to the local commercant? what pests or diseases are showing up this month, and in what numbers? Nobody can easily answer those questions; a bank or an exporter is not in the business of going out to Gitenga and spending a month or two walking around, looking at coffee bushes, and talking to farmers. So, the banks just say "hell with it" and lend money to the guy who wants to import a couple of containers of cement instead. (The modal Burundian bank loan is, I've determined, a letter of credit for importing two containers of cement.)
This is getting away from the credit thing, but: Note again that pretty much all coffee farmers are Hutus. If you haven't been studying Burundian history, here's the short version: 15%-20% of the population are Tutsis, everyone else is Hutu. The Germans and Belgians favored the Tutsis and gave them preferential access to jobs and education. (Relatively preferential. Not a lot of Africans were getting college degrees or high-paying jobs under Belgian rule.) That preference has bedeviled the politics of Burundi (and its neighbor Rwanda) ever since.
Now, if coffee farming here were rationalized -- that is, if those 700,000 small farms were turned into, say, 100,000 big farms, or 10,000 plantations -- it would be noticeably more efficient. Burundi's neighbors have done this long ago; most Kenyan coffee, for instance, is grown on large farms or plantations. And those big farms can get credit.
But if that ever happened here... well, you'd have 600,000 families looking for a place to go. Some would become landless agricultural laborers, a very small minority would become agricultural technicians or skilled workers in coffee processing, and the rest -- based on the experience of the rest of Africa -- would end up in a big ring of shantytowns around the capital.
Bujumbura doesn't have that characteristic circle of tarpaper shacks and reeking alleys. Buj is, in fact, surprisingly shanty-free. And the main reason is, the whole country is still doing subsistence agriculture on tiny little farms.
(There's another, less pleasant reason. There were some shantytowns back in the 1990s. They were all Hutu, and the government was Tutsi, and when the crisis got going the government got nervous about having a big mass of poor Hutus on their doorstep. So they cleaned them out. It's unclear to me what this means, but from what I can tell of the time and the characters involved, it was about as bad as you're thinking. The best scenario was, a lot of very heavily armed men came in and told the shanty dwellers to get gone now.)
And why am I learning all this stuff when my job here doesn't directly involve coffee? Because in Burundi, everything comes back to coffee. 90% of the country is small farmers, and coffee is the only major commercial export crop. I think it's something like Central America used to be, seventy or eighty or a hundred years ago.
And, by the way, how is the coffee? -- Not bad. I find it a bit harsh for my tastes, but it's sharp rather than acrid, and it has a kick that I could get used to. You could have it for breakfast with something bland or sweet -- pancakes, say -- and it would go very well.