On a high plateau along the western rim of the East Africa Rift Valley, Burundi is situated between Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kayanza Province, which sits along Burundi’s northern border with Rwanda, is home to the Kibingo Washing Station, where over 3,500 coffee growers from the surrounding hills process their coffee. In the three years we’ve had Kibingo on our menu, we’ve been continually delighted by its exceptional quality.
The Kibingo Washing Station is operated by Greenco, the non-profit arm of our sourcing partner, Sucafina. Earlier this August, we were fortunate to be able to speak with Eddy Nkanagu from Greenco, who is based in Ngozi, about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Burundi and their local communities.
In contrast to their neighbors in Rwanda who implemented strict and immediate measures to control the outbreak, the response in Burundi was delayed and scattered—a direct result of the government’s deliberate attempt to deny and cover up the true scope of the pandemic. Several factors contributed to this approach. Burundi is the third poorest country in the world, and without a strong financial safety net, the government was reluctant to close borders. This year was also a presidential election year. After a coup attempt in 2015, there was a lot of pressure to ensure a clean election, and so a lockdown was avoided to ensure voting could proceed.
The new president won by a large majority, and with the votes counted by June, the coronavirus officially “arrived” and some light safety measures were put in place. In an interesting turn of events, the sitting president died unexpectedly later in June, and although it was ruled a heart attack, it is widely suspected that he died due to Covid-19. With the president’s death, the newly elected president took office early and declared a national crisis.
In spite of this acknowledgment, the government was reticent to invest in effective campaigns, so the onus primarily fell on private actors to take action to prevent the spread. Greenco conducted their own research discreetly and implemented safety measures in the absence of official direction from the government. At first, Eddy told us, the farmers looked at them like they were crazy, since the virus was not taken very seriously by the government. Greenco reached out to health workers to provide training to farm leaders, who would then pass on the information to farmers.
Initially, face masks were distributed, but they weren’t widely adopted, Eddy told us, noting that he’d often find them scattered on the ground shortly after handing them out. Hand washing stations were installed, and in the cherry selection and weighing room, which is typically very crowded, Greenco implemented social distancing. Of course, social distancing measures caused delays in processing cherry, forcing them to work late into the night. Previously, they were able to purchase a ton of cherry in an hour. With distancing measures in place, they lost about 50% capacity, or about 500kg/hour, but after being able to build some capacity after about 3 weeks, they were back up to 700kh/hour.
One of the biggest challenges, Eddy told us, was that due to a lack of education on the virus, many misunderstood it to be a sanitary disease, which created an aura of stigma around infections. This stigma, coupled with a lack of transparency which runs through the country, contributed to a lack of transparency around confirmed cases. Even within the local community, there were only rumors of cases, with about a dozen farmers who were thought to have the virus.
To date, the official government reports show only 550 cases and no deaths, a number which Eddy acknowledges is probably not too far from the truth, though it’s hard to say with cases being played down so much. As of late September, Eddy reported that they are no longer hearing of cases within the community and that the government has changed its tone, with safety measures finally being promoted, albeit timidly.
Since the harvest ended in early July, Greenco has largely been able to get back to work on the farms helping farmers fertilize crops and maintain their land for the next harvest, completing certification audits, distributing livestock and insurance cards, and installing donated solar panels.