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By Michelle Shaw

When Bob and Michelle Fish invited me to travel with them to Burundi, I was really excited and a bit overwhelmed. The trip was coming up quickly so there was little time for indecision. Honestly? I wasn’t even sure I could spell Burundi correctly let alone locate it on a map.

Beautiful Burundi

Where in the World is Burundi?

I quickly learned that Burundi is below Rwanda, between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, very near the equator. And yes, Burundi is at elevation and grows lots of coffee. When I sat down to tell my husband about this opportunity, he enthusiastically agreed I should go. This would be my second time traveling internationally with Team OBIIS and my first time ever in Africa! Once again, I was ALL IN for the BIGG adventure.

After a flurry of vaccinations and some quick learning about the history, culture, language, and customs . . . I packed my bags. Time for the LONG journey to Bujumbura, Burundi.

Beautiful Burundi

“Boots on the Ground”

When I traveled with OBIIS last December to Chiapas, Mexico, we were going to visit one of the Farm-Direct partners, La Fortaleza. Meaning, OBIIS is already buying coffee from these farmers. Bob and Michelle know the farms, the farmers, the families, the terrain . . . they could tell me precisely what to expect, down to the delicious fresh tortillas we would be greeted with upon arrival.

This trip? Things were very different. We were embarking on the first “boots on the ground” trip to Burundi. While the unknowns made me a bit apprehensive, it made sense. A partnership cannot be forged if you don’t take that initial trip.

In their mission to have BIGGBY COFFEE be 100% Farm-Direct by 2028, Bob and Michelle always say they will follow any lead. So, when they heard Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian, of JNP Coffee, speak at the Specialty Coffee Association of America Tradeshow in 2023, they were intrigued and impressed. When they re-connected with Jeanine again at the same tradeshow this year , they talked in more depth.

Jeanine kept saying, “You have to come to Burundi!”

Throughout hours of conversations, Bob, Michelle, and Jeanine grew more excited. Their values of people, planet, and community, were aligning; this connection was worth further exploration.

Beautiful Burundi

How it Works

The approach to a first boots on the ground visit seems simple:

• OBIIS is visiting to experience what the host wants to share;
• Team OBIIS will say “yes” to just about every experience;
• OBIIS is visiting as an engaged observer;
• OBIIS is interested in people, the planet, and the community;
• OBIIS does not move quickly. A partnership will not be decided upon in their first visit;
• If values are aligned, and there is vision of a possible partnership, OBIIS plans a second visit that will most likely include a Farm Partner and/or an OBIIS agronomist.

This all made sense to me, intellectually. However, seeing how this plays out in real time? Super fascinating!

On a first time visit, there’s so much that’s new. For everyone. It takes time to build the deep trust that leads to a lifelong relationship like an OBIIS partnership. Initially, everyone is trying to figure things out.

We taste coffee. We bounce along for hours on dusty roads. We visit several coffee farms. We walk the fields. We meet the people. We hear their stories. We delight in their welcome song and dance. We are captivated by the kids. We wander through the wet mill. The dry mill. We sweat. We laugh. We talk about coffee. And life. We eat delicious food and talk about coffee. And life. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and I love it all.

Beautiful Burundi

The Outcome?

Our time in Burundi was beautiful, and there will be a second visit sometime in early 2025!

As I write this, nestled in at home, Bob and Michelle are back out there. In fact, they are once again in Africa, furthering their mission of empowering consumers to be the positive change in coffee-producing countries and around the world.

Turns out, having a vision to create both economic and environmental sustainability for all participants in the coffee supply chain takes a tremendous amount of time and energy.

And, it happens one trip, one relationship, at a time.

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