COLLEGE STATION The Norman E. Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, as a member of a special consortium, has been awarded a program to expand agricultural capacity and opportunity in Burundi.
Development Alternatives Inc. leads the consortium that includes universities, private firms, agricultural industry groups and non-governmental organizations, said Linda Cleboski, program development coordinator at the Borlaug Institute.
“As part of the Burundi Agribusiness Project, the institute will provide short-term technical assistance, investigate and assess opportunities for agricultural enhancement and help design program activities,” Cleboski said.
“The Borlaug Institute will take the lessons and successes from seven years of helping farmers improve their income and quality of life in neighboring Rwanda and transfer and adapt those to helping the people of Burundi,” she said.
Development Alternatives Inc. worked with the institute to identify the best way to take advantage of its success in helping revitalize Rwanda’s once-failing coffee industry, Cleboski said.
But while Rwanda and Burundi produce many of the same agricultural products and face similar challenges to building agricultural capacity, some differences exist, she noted.
“Burundi already has made good progress with developing coffee co-ops, which is an important link in that product’s value chain,” she said. “And unlike Rwandans, the people of Burundi are culturally adapted to drinking coffee, so there’s more of a domestic market in place.”
As with Rwanda, the institute’s initial efforts in Burundi will be focused on ways to improve its coffee industry and the institutions that support the industry, Cleboski said.
“But another priority will be looking at value chain’ improvement for other high-value agricultural products, such as chili peppers and cassava, a tropical plant with starchy roots that are used as a food source,” she added.
The major goals of the project include supporting the privatization and marketing of Burundi’s coffee industry, identifying and assessing key agricultural investment opportunities; assessing the potential building agricultural capacity, and evaluating economic factors and opportunities for agricultural enterprises, according to project background documents.
Assisting coffee growers and those who produce high-value agricultural products in Burundi will benefit that country as a whole, added Dr. Tim Schilling, coordinator for international programs at the Borlaug Institute.
“Burundi has an agrarian society based around small family farms,” Schilling said. “By helping farmers there improve their income through strengthening the links in their value chain processing, quality control, packaging and shipping we also help strengthen the economic and social foundation of Burundi.”
Schilling, who has lived in Rwanda since 2001, has been instrumental in the remarkable turnaround of that country’s coffee industry, Cleboski said.
“For the past six years, Tim has worked with others as part of the Partnerships for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages, or PEARL project of the U.S. Agency for International Development,” she said. “During that time, we have provided technical assistance, educational outreach and other expertise to Rwanda farmers and others involved in agriculture, especially those in the coffee industry. Now we have the opportunity to bring this expertise to Burundi to help them develop and market their agricultural products.”
Before 2001, Rwanda was penalized in the international coffee market for having poor quality coffee, and farmers were digging up coffee trees because they couldn’t find a buyer, she said. Schilling and other project partners worked with coffee growers and cooperatives to develop a new sector: high-quality specialty coffees for the international market.
“Revenue from specialty coffee sales from the PEARL project and spin-off operations went from zero in 2001 to about $3.5 million in 2006,” Schilling said. “The average income from coffee for farmers involved in the program grew threefold from 2001 to 2006.”
About 60,000 farm families have benefitted directly or from spin-off activities tied to the PEARL project, he added.
Rwanda’s coffee industry has improved so significantly over the past six years that it held its first-ever national specialty coffee competition this year, the 2007 Rwandan Golden Cup, Schilling said.
The competition was sponsored by the new Sustaining Partnerships to enhance Rural Enterprise and Agricultural Development, or SPREAD, project, led by Schilling. SPREAD is an agreement between USAID and the Texas A&M University System.
SPREAD is a continuation of earlier efforts to improve the Rwandan coffee industry, but will also help develop and market other agricultural products from that country, such as chili peppers and cassava, he said.
“We’re hoping to help Rwanda take advantage of the ethnic food market in the U.S., Europe and Canada for products like chili sauce and bon foufou, a flour made from cassava,” he said. “We also have plans for helping Rwanda develop and market its tea and spice products.” Future SPREAD project efforts should supply additional knowledge and insights for Burundi, Cleboski added.
“Our project experience in Rwanda will serve as a guide for much of what we do as a member of the consortium working to build agricultural capacity in Burundi,” Cleboski said. “Ultimately, we hope to do the same thing in Burundi as we have been doing in Rwanda helping people improve their quality of life.”