Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

Bujumbura — Bumper coffee harvests were supposed to fuel Burundi’s recovery from three years of political upheaval. Tell that to Jean Ntungiyabandi, one local farmer who’s just called it quits.

The tiny East African nation, which counts Starbucks among its customers and gets at least 80% of its foreign exchange from coffee, wants to double output by 2023. But delays in local payments are squeezing its 60,000 small-scale producers, complicating plans to revive the economy as Burundi tries to recover from an economic and political crisis that’s claimed at least a thousand lives.

“Coffee, as far as I’m concerned, is finished,” said Ntungiyabandi, a father of five who has a small plot in Mwaro, central Burundi, and previously grew as much as 300kg a year. “I will exploit my land in another way.”

Still, in more than a dozen interviews in seven of Burundi’s 18 provinces, most coffee farmers said they’re determined to stick it out, even as factors including low prices and fertiliser shortages mean they make little or no profit and are unable to hike output.

Coffee-growing, encouraged in Burundi in the 1930s when it was a Belgian colony, is a vital cog in the agriculture-led economy, the smallest in East Africa. More than half the country’s 11-million people depend on it for their livelihoods, and it’s key to plans by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government to revitalise economic productivity that’s been in the doldrums since deadly unrest flared in 2015 as he secured a third term.

Angry farmers

“Farmers are angry because they’re earning little,” said Joseph Ntirabampa, leader of the Coffee Farmers Confederation, which is lobbying authorities to raise the prices paid to producers. He said the average coffee plant produces 800g per annual harvest; on a typical 100-tree plot, with the beans bought at 500 francs/kg, that can mean income of just 40,000 francs ($22) a year.

“We want the government and partners to invest in coffee by supplying enough fertilisers,” which can increase output from each tree, Ntirabampa said. Authorities pledged in August to invest $81m in steps including fertiliser distribution.

The industry regulator has accused local buyers’ associations of not exporting some of their purchases, as well as failing to repatriate about $23m from foreign sales that were made. Both situations, they say, held up farmers’ pay.

Growth pangs

Economic growth this year in Burundi, which is about the size of the US state of Maryland, is estimated at 0.4% by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — and a coffee renaissance may be some way off.

Burundi produced 16,079 tonnes in 2017/2018, some 20% more than the previous season, but still about 13% less than in 2014/2015, according to the central bank.

Immaculate Sindabimenya, who’s farming a small plot about 40km from Burundi’s commercial capital, Bujumbura, is among those finding times tough. “What I get from this coffee is not even half of what I spend on maintenance” of the farm, she said. “Sometimes I feel I could quit this.”

Agriculture minister Déo-Guide Rurema has defended the amounts paid to farmers. In an interview with local newspaper Burundi Eco in August last year he said the government’s 2016 decision to set the minimum price at 500 francs/kg has protected producers from speculators and that fertilisers are available. Government officials didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.

‘Derisory’ pay

François Mbabare, who has a small plot in the central province of Gitega, described the prices paid as “derisory” and said officials should take part in coffee-farming to understand the hardships.

“We work for nothing, especially since we’re not allowed to set prices for the coffee we produce ourselves,” he said.

For some farmers, such as Hakizimana Emmanuelline, who was widowed during Burundi’s civil war in the 1990s, coffee-growing has become so integral to their family and community they can’t imagine abandoning it.

“I can’t do much with the income from coffee, but nor can I live without it,” she said from her farm in Kayanza province in the north of the country. “I am happy to see it, even though I benefit almost nothing.”

Bloomberg