How are Coffee Farmers at Nemba dealing with harvest in these Covid times?

It’s been a hell of a year. Weird, devastating, disruptive, revolutionary, and everything in between. For those producing coffee, this year has been particularly challenging on top of a mountain of other preexisting issues. Laura has been checking in with folks that we buy from, including the folks responsible for the incredible coffee that members of the Nemba washing station produce in Burundi. 

Eddy is the manager of Greenco, an exporter and facilitator of a group of washing stations in Kayanza and Ngozi provinces – We reached out at the end of July as harvest was wrapping up for 2020 – For those of you who’ve been with us a while, you know these coffees. Date Juice (washed process) and Blueberry Milkshake (natural process) are both lots we think about a lot between harvests. Some of you folks ask us and think about them quite a bit too! 

Laura (Luna): How is this harvest season different with Covid and everything?

Eddy (Greenco): This season with Covid, we had to pay extra attention to sanitary measures. Burundi’s government did not officialise any measures, so we had to go the extra mile to keep our farmers and staff safe. By implementing ourselves rules on hand washing when entering the Coffee Washing Stations; staff to wear gloves and masks; as well as 2 meter distancing. It was a big effort on education we had to do. It was particularly challenging in our operations, as the government did not have campaigns sensitising farmers, we had to educate them ourselves on the risks and convince them it was all necessary.

As far as harvest volumes, covid was not a challenge.

What has been the most challenging part of this year for growers? how about for Nemba and for Greenco?

Covid was challenge for all, as far as adapting to new norms of security, distancing, and all. However for Growers, the main challenge was the lack of rain which greatly disturbed everyone’s projections as far as volumes. We had early heavy rains in April, and early May then it stopped. This lack rain prohibited a good volume of cherries from ripping. So its been a disappointment for farmers as for Nemba and Greenco as whole.

It is overall the same challenge on productivity we have each year, which builds up on the exodus of rural areas. We are making efforts and running program to interest youth in agriculture, but with the lack of productivity, it is becoming more difficult

Has there been anything that has been a silver lining/ better than you expected due to the strange circumstances of this year?

If we were to find a silver lining in all of this, may be that the government did not put strict restrictive measures on movement during the crisis. With the harvest peaks sooner and smaller than expected, had farmers been restricted to staying home late April, early May; it would have been their whole livelihood for the year that would have gone passed them. As much we would have wanted more global safer measures, the fact that farmers could work in this key period of the year for them, was crucial for them.

This year has put even more pressure onto agriculture especially. What kind of changes do you think would help everyone move forward together out of this crisis?

In order to create more resilient farmer communities, we need to diversify sources of income for farmers. Should anything happen to their harvest, it’s their whole year that’s affected. At Greenco, thanks to donations from partners and coffee roasters and buyers, we’ve been able to bring other things to these communities to better their lives and diversify their source of income: such as livestock breeding program, installation of sustainable solar panels, insurance plans, amongst others things.

Another issue which I mentioned earlier is the lack of productivity. Not enough cherries per coffee tree. If we could professionalize coffee farms and turn them into more estate models, it would boost productivity and attractiveness of the sector as a whole. The small holder farmer model in place makes it more difficult to uplift all, as there is disparity amongst them, different practices etc.. with too much individuality amongst them.

On a more global note, developments we are seeing in block chain could really help in developing these communities. The traceability should re-ensure coffee buyers that their money and donations are well used and really get to the source to help communities, so we are pretty excited to witness more development in this field.

Anything you want to add?

Burundi has just lost its president this past week. He ruled for 15 years and was ready to pass on the leadership to the president-elect. The loss of such an important figure after all these years of ruling and the influence he’s had will definitely reshape Burundi. Many farmers were shocked by the loss, but Burundians being are a very resilient group of people, so we do hope and expect that through this shock, a new strength and dynamic will grow.

I wanted to mention that we personally feel a sense of frustration with the lack of ability to pay (much deserved) higher premiums. I understand that is due to a ceiling on the premium that is legally allowed in Burundi, is that correct? Is there a way we can better coordinate efforts to make additional in-kind payments, such as with the Livestock Program or other things that the folks at Nemba and other washing stations are wanting in order to progress? Also, I wanted to mention how it seems like, in Kenya anyway, the recent shift to allow small holder farmers to attain pulping licenses has given rise to the micro-estate in Kirinyaga and other Counties, and it seems like it’s going really well and allows for more accountability and transparency for the smallholder and for the buyers along the supply stream. If that ever happens for Burundi, it would be awesome. 

Yes it is due to a ceiling on premium allowed in Burundi, and partly also due to the government taxing foreign currency entries pretty highly that not much would end up reaching here. And we also believe that creating programs such as the livestock program, solar power or health insurance, amongst others, are the best way to target the community and create something long-lasting for them, so thanks for your support in that.

Regarding Kenya allowing smallholder farmers to have pulping licenses, it would indeed be a great license to have here for farmers. It would allow more freedom and to best value their hard work by going further into the supply chain. Stronger sense of ownership + further in the supply chain would create additional motivation for them and their families, as we are losing a lot of youth in the sector.

We’ll be continuing these check-ins through the rest of this year and sharing them with you – If you want to be poked when we publish another one of these, sign up for our newsletter.