Africana Plus

No 10 September 1995.4


Your morning coffee

Out of bed in the morning, a nice hot coffee... What a perfect way to start off the day, right?
Other than being black, what relationship could there possibly be between your cup of coffee and Burundi?

Burundi is in fact an important coffee producer, growing arabica beans, considered by Burundians to be the best in the world. Burundi produces 30,000 tons of coffee annually, which generates 85% of its foreign currency receipts. At $2,900 per ton, coffee brings in close to $90 million: quite a tidy sum for a small, basically agricultural country which ranks among the 25 poorest countries in the world.

Let's take a closer look at our morning coffee, and trace it right back to its beginnings as the red berries of the coffee tree.

We bought our coffee at the supermarket, which charged its usual mark-up. For a 200g pot of coffee, we paid about $5 (or $25 per kilogram). Our supermarket bought its coffee from an importer (a multinational like Nestlé for example) which got it for $4 per kilo, the price set by the Council of the Association of Coffee-Producing Countries in London. The Burundi producer who actually grew the beans received a mere $0.80 per kilo for them.

So what does the government do with the difference? In countries run by a military dictatorship, most of the money goes into maintaining the army. In Burundi, this has turned out to be catastrophic, because the army has been a force for sowing chaos, not order.

An African university student in Montreal recently said that Burundi's security forces -- chief among them the army -- were doing it serious harm. The army wants to keep control of Burundi society at any price. As self-appointed protector of the Tutsi community, the military elite constantly reiterates the dangers of being a minority, and has carried out massacres against the Hutu in order to perpetuate ethnic hatred. This of course plays right into the hands of both Hutu and Tutsi extremists who seek to gain power through violence.

The Burundi people, meanwhile, live in fear of those who let their weapons do the talking for them. They have been effectively gagged, unable to speak out against the tragedy that is unfolding. The land of a thousand hills has a remarkably appropriate proverb: You hide the fact you hate me; I hide the fact I know. In a country where a person's words are interpreted positively or negatively depending on his ethnic group, talk is cheap. People do not live or even exist outside their ethnic group.

But let's go back to our coffee, which is starting to taste decidedly bitter, and the small Burundi producer, who receives $0.80 per kilo for his coffee. Since he has grown about 250 kilos on his 40 ares of land (one "are" = 100 square metres), he will earn $200 for the year. In Burundi, the annual per capita income is $100: not everyone is lucky enough to own a coffee plantation.

But we're not finished yet. Even with this meagre income, our farmer still has to pay taxes. And what does the government do with his taxes? Why, feed the miliary machine of course, completing the vicious circle. One day, a few "well-intentioned" soldiers may come and kill the small farmer for being from the wrong ethnic group or not complying with all the directives of the ruling caste. His plantation is then given to someone more compliant.

All in all, quite a black tale for 7:00 in the morning. The coffee gets away with just a roasting. But we do sometimes feel the urge to boycott some multinational or other again, just to shake them out of their capitalist rut.

We can only hope that one day democracy (as honest a regime as possible) will prevail when fairly-elected civilians lead the government in Bujumbura. With appropriate support from sympathetic governments, NGOs, churches and citizens' groups, this democracy will be in a better position to defend its cause on international markets in order to obtain fairer prices for its products. It seems to me that this would enhance the flavour of our morning coffee.

But until this happens, let us urge the UN to do more than observe. Perhaps they could bring pressure to bear on the Burundi government to disarm extremist militias and integrate both ethnic groups into the army.

As for ourselves, as Missionaries of Africa, we will continue to support initiatives aimed at peace through our involvement in this small central African country. There are men and women of goodwill in Burundi, just as anywhere else. Since the country is 70% Christian, its people may be able to transcend the law of retribution. Let us have faith that the law of the New Testament will prevail, the law of forgiveness and reconciliation, which is not an impossible dream.


One of the smallest countries in Africa, landlocked Burundi is located in the centre of the continent, 1200 km from the Indian Ocean and 2000 km from the Atlantic; it is bordered to the north by Rwanda, to the east and south by Tanzania, and separated from Zaire to the west by Lake Tanganyika.
One-party state. Member of the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL) and the OAU; associated with the EC.


Area: 27,834 km2; highlands divided into four distinct geographical areas: 1. Central plateaus becoming rolling hills in NE; 2. NS crest of Nile-Congo watershed, peaking at 2500 m.; 3. Imbo plain to W; 4. Depressions to the E and N. Numerous water courses.
Climate: Moderate; warm; average precipitation.
Vegetation: Primary forest in hills; bush and savannah in the plains; crops, plantations and pastures in the plateaus.


5,068,788, of which 50% is under age 15; very high density (200 pop. per km2); uneven distribution. Demo. growth: 2.96% (1989) vs. 3.1% (1979); birth rate: 4.9%; death rate: 2.1%; very high infant mortality: 13.8%; life expectancy: age 49.
Schooling: 30%
Ethnic groups: Hutu, 85%; Tutsi, 14%; Twa, 1%.
Cities: Bujumbura, cap. (pop. 604,725), Gitega (576,694), Ngozi (490,000), Bururi (384,957); lowest urbanization rate in the world.
Languages: Kirundi, French, Swahili.
Religions: Roman Catholic, 61%; Animist, 30%; Protestant and Orthodox, 8%; Muslim, 1%.
Average annual per capita income: under US $50 (Burundi is one of the 25 poorest countries in the world).


Subsistence farming, dominated by food crops: 92% of pop. dependent on agriculture and livestock.
- Main resources: coffee (23 to 30,000 tons; 9/10 arabica), seed cotton (8,000 tons), black tea (4,000 tons), bananas (world's fifth largest producer, with 1 million tons), hides and skins. Prospecting for nickel and cassiterite. Livestock: Many head of livestock (700,000 goats; 600,000 cattle; 310,000 sheep; 80,000 pigs; 600,000 fowl).
Fishing: 20,000 tons per year, from Lake Tanganyika.
Industries: At an early stage of development, concentrated in Bujumbura (13% of GNP; employ 2% of labour force).
Very dense network of roads.
Environment: Strongly threatened by demo. growth and brushfires; creation of natural reserves and national parks, reforestation operations.
Currency: Burundi franc. US $1 - FBu 193.72 (Jan. 1992)

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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