In the recently troubled country of Burundi, in the heart of East Africa, the Long Miles Coffee Project’s washing station sits amongst a vast patchwork of coffee farms. During harvest, farmers walk baskets of coffee cherries, picked in the early morning, to the station, where the cherries will be sorted, de-pulped, fermented and dried in preparation for export. These farmers are part of a growing community - they receive a fair price for their coffee which can be used to pay for school fees, healthcare or anything else they cannot grow or make themselves. At the centre of this story is the Carlson family. Kristy and Ben Carlson, with their kids in tow, left their life in America in the hopes of seeing both fairer prices for coffee farmers and increased coffee quality in the rural hills of Burundi.
Above left: During harvest, Evariste walks his coffee cherries five kilometers from his home on Musumba hill to our washing station. It’s a long uphill walk to the station. We always huff and puff walking from Musumba to Bukeye – and that’s without 50 pounds of coffee cherries on our backs or our heads!
“Have you ever tasted coffee?”
“Today was the first time.”
“What did you think?”
“It’s very bitter – but I’m glad you see the value in it.”
Until recently, farmers from Musumba hill had to walk across a single felled tree, high above the river, to get to our washing station. This year we were able to replace their single “lane” bridge and partner with the community to build a safe footpath bridge. One day, we’d love to see Musumba with a working bridge for all types of vehicles- but if we’ve learned anything in the last five years it’s that a small start is still a great start.
Evariste has five children and his mantra for them is: “Work hard and learn how to sustain yourself so that you’ll know what to do when I’m not alive.” Like many farmers in Burundi, and maybe like all of us humans, sustainability is at the heart of Evariste’s life.
Above right: This harvest I started a new portrait series called “Making Coffee Human” to connect people to the faces behind their coffee. It’s a work in process. Every coffee harvest we nearly drown in coffee skins or pulp. After the beans have been removed from the cherry, what’s left is a sea of bright red pulp. We’ve tried several pilot programs – using pulp for everything from fertilizer to baking. Yep, there is such a thing as coffee pulp flour. Our most successful use for it has been turning it into fertilizer to nourish next season’s crop. Jean Marie has been working around coffee for most of his life. His family is from Gaharo hill where they have just 80 coffee trees. This is Jean Marie’s third coffee season working with us on the pulp team. Since working with us, he has come to believe that growing coffee will give his family a better future. He plans to plant new coffee trees on his land in the coming year.
It’s not unusual for our kids to make the most of Burundi’s year round warm weather and rainy season. We have no shopping malls. No movie theatres. No sushi bars.. but we do have mud. Eight expat kids in a mud-hole.
Above left: As foreigners we often get expressions of shock, awe and even fear thrown our way. Even in communities that we have lived and worked in for close to five years, people can’t help but shout Mzungu! (white person) as we pass. However, every once in awhile the shouts are ‘Mama Myles!’ instead of Mzungu and on days like that we feel like we’ve won the lottery…
Above right: We had collection points on over 37 hills this harvest. I snapped this on Munyinya hill after we had gotten caught in some heavy rain. I don’t know why we even bother with rain jackets – they never do much when faced with a Burundi rainy season downpour.
Burundi was recently ranked one of the poorest nations in the world, spurred on by its current political crisis, but it’s rich in fresh produce.
Above left: Producing fully washed coffee means hard days and lots of water. Our 4,500 farming families asked us to help them bring in the harvest to the washing station. Our team of agronomists and Coffee Scouts watch and sift through each cherry to make sure only the best coffee makes it into our micro lots.
Above right: Coffee bags reading for shipping. Coffee makes up 70% of Burundi’s GDP.
Your first sip of coffee. Do you remember it? A woman on Gaharo hill tastes her coffee for the very first time.