We recently had the privilege to interview Ben Carlson of Long Miles Coffee Project and hear about his experience living in Burundi and his heart towards unlocking potential in these special people. Well worth the read!
Tell me a little bit about how the idea of Long Miles Coffee Project came about and what drew you to Burundi.
Well, I had been in coffee previously as a coffee trader but it really came about when my wife and I were living in South Africa working for a non-profit organization. I was consulting in coffee on the side, just because I love coffee. The country of Burundi had just privatized the coffee sector and somehow this company found me. They asked me to come to Burundi and do some cuppingto see what the chances were of having specialty micro-lots coming from the country.
So I Googled Burundi…this was back in 2009…and thought, “wow, this is kind of scary. Let’s do it!” My wife and I had decided that she was going to go into photography full-time and I knew that I wanted to do something with coffee but I didn’t know what. I didn’t want to be a roaster. My wife had run a coffee shop for a year and sold it and I knew I didn’t want to run any coffee shops. And so, what else do you do? Then I said, “Oh, I’ll be a coffee buyer.” Then I got the chance to go and consult. I was in Burundi for two weeks and I said, "this is it!" It has the most amazing potential of coffee and it’s not being done well. And it’s still one of the best coffees I’ve ever had. Nobody was doing it at the time, the coffee is amazing, and I knew it could get even better.
How long have you and Kristy been in Burundi?
Well, this will be our sixth coffee season. But it’s just over five years.
Coffee in Burundi comes from hills, multiple families contributing to each “batch” of coffee. Tell me a little bit about how that works.
A lot of people think of this guy from Colombia and, here he comes with his donkey and his coffee. He washes it and he dries it and then he goes and sells it to Folgers or whoever. In Central America, there are these single estate coffees – which is why you get people asking, “Oh, is it an estate coffee?” Where as in Burundi, and a lot of East Africa, every coffee you get is made up of hundreds, if not thousands of farmers, working together to make one small lot of coffee. Long Miles is a washing station – a place for the families to bring their picked cherries to wash and process them, preparing them for roasters - serves about 3,500 families.
So if you look at the coffee that Torch is getting, it’s coming from a single hill, and that lot was made up of 200 different families. Most families have an average of 150 trees. And their production levels are less than a kilo of coffee cherries per tree. So, the reality is there is just not enough land for farmers to have more trees. We’re talking about the poorest country in the world. When I started, I would go around to all these washing stations and each washing station would have anywhere from 500 to 800 to 1,000 families. I cupped those coffees and found the best areas. It was through this process that I realized, through trial and error, these families are subsistence living. They are literally digging up what they’re going to eat today and coffee is what enables them to send one or two of their kids to school, maybe put a roof on their house or be able to pay for a wedding. It’s the one time they get cash a year.
Burundi has had a very difficult past and even now, there is a lot of turmoil. Do you believe the coffee industry in Burundi has the potential to become a stabilizing force in the country in the midst of the current tense political and social tensions?
I definitely think so. I was just at the US Embassy yesterday, and there was a guy from the European Union there who leads the political arm of the EU. As we were talking, we realized that for Long Miles to succeed, we need a stable government so that we can do business; so that we are not hindered exporting; so that there are advantageous tax codes being written and there is not an undue risk of us losing our business, we need that.
At the same time, 70% of Burundi’s GDP comes from coffee. So if coffee does not affect change in Burundi, the country is in big trouble. So, I think we went into Burundi seeing the potential of how good it (the coffee) could be, but also thinking coffee can change Burundi. Part of it is this, I’m a coffee guy and I’m drinking my own kool-aid. I’ve had lots of other coffee people tell me I’m naive; that it’s just this country and the political situation is messed up, and it’s never gonna get any better.
What we’ve seen from Long Miles perspective is, we can’t wait for the political situation to correct itself so that we can do business and affect change. The reality is that that may never happen. So are we willing to invest our lives as a family, our entire livelihood into a place that is politically unstable and may not have the hope of changing? And I guess.....we’ve done it, we are doing it, we’re all in, and here we are.
What do you think it would take for the coffee industry to grow before the political tensions are resolved?
I think what it comes down to is, coffee producers like Long Miles and our neighbor coffee producers have to start focusing on quality coffee. I think specialty coffee is the only way for Burundi to become economically viable in the coffee sector and as a country. That means we need more coffee producers to invest more in nurseries, in fertilizers, in mulch. Really, at a grassroots level, help the hundreds, and even thousands, of families that we each work with.
The only way we see change is if we invest in their (the farmers) lives and help their lives change and help them invest in their farms. And when they have a better life and their coffee is growing healthier and with a better quality, then it’s going to get more revenue for them as a family; it’s going to get more revenue for us as a producer; it’s going to get more tax revenue for the country. And then, for companies like Torch, they’re going to be happier and happier because now they have a relationship with a coffee producer that’s getting year after year, better and better quality. And then you as coffee drinker are like, “Man, this coffee just keeps getting better and better!”
That commitment to getting better year over year, that comes with your Trust Mark. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Our Trust Mark is just another way in which we bring the human element to what we do. It is a symbol of the relationship that the roaster has sought us out intentionally with the desire to build a relationship. They want to invest time and money into the people growing their coffee and in return, we commit to making the coffee we sell them each year better and better.
It’s just one way in which we strive to bring the human element to coffee. It’s just another way that we can invest in our farmers; help improve their lives.
Given everything that has happened, how do you stay focused on your mission? Is it hard to remember why you’re there?
We have a strong faith in God and we’re doing this for more than just making a profit. We want to see a transformation in community. If you’re transcending personal gain, it makes it easier to get through those rough days. That is our driving focus; something that gives us the ability to say, “It’s worth sticking with it.” Because grit alone is not going to keep us in Burundi.
And for us as a family, this is no side project, no NGO. We’re here because this is our family’s life. We have two farms, and we’re here to export coffee. We’re farmers and producers and exporters. This is our life. If this doesn’t work, then there’s nothing. In a sense, we’ve said, “We’re with you Burundi. We’re with you, farmers.” We’re farming, we’re terracing, we’re mulching, we’re searching for fertilizer with them, we’re fighting against the insects with them. If it doesn’t rain, we’re crying with them, if it rains we’re rejoicing with them. It’s life. It’s bigger than just a project or a volunteer thing.
At the end of the day, what is the most important aspect of Long Miles Coffee Project? What is the driving force behind what you do, day in and day out?
The thing we’ve really been talking about lately is just this idea of making coffee human. The human element of it. Coffee is human. How many times do hands touch each bean before it gets to the roaster – picking, sorting, floating, picking out, pulping, fermenting, grating, rinsing, pre-drying and triaging it and then drying it and triaging it again? There are over seven quality steps require human hands.
We’re constantly relying upon the human element. That’s the vision of Long Miles. Coffee. People. Potential. Coffee brought us to Burundi, but it’s really about the people. It’s about a community that can realize potential. If fact, you can see that if you follow our Instagram account. Kristi does the photography and we work really hard to capture the faces of our farmers. A lot of people, when they think about a company they think about the logo or the type-face. We don’t want that. When people think about Long Miles, we want them to think about the people, the farmers who make this happen. We really believe that we need to be advocates for making coffee human. And I think we’re starting to see the change we knew could happen in our communities.