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Three Questions with Ben Carlson of Long Miles Coffee Project

Ben Carlson Cyriaque Ndabishurire

Long Miles Coffee Project Community Development Officer and coffee farmer Cyriaque Ndabishurire with Long Miles Co-Founder Ben Carlson at the Heza Washing Station in Kayanza, Burundi. Photo by Joy Mavugo, courtesy of Long Miles Coffee Project.

Responding to past injustices in Burundi’s industry and building upon their own careers in coffee, Ben and Kristy Carlson started Long Miles Coffee Project in 2011. 

The coffee production and exporting company has focused on the needs of smallholder farmers, paying higher prices for coffee cherries, establishing traceable microlots and prioritizing direct connections between roasters and farmers. 

Following more than a decade in Burundi, Long Miles recently expanded its scope to include coffees from Kenya, particularly from lesser known parts of Western Kenya.

It’s the latest chapter in the long coffee careers of the Carlsons, with Ben starting off as a barista in his college years. When he and Kristy moved to South Africa to work for an NGO, they found coffee options lacking, so Kristy started a coffee shop and Ben began doing consultant work, which led him to Burundi. 

In Burundi, said Ben, “There was beautiful coffee, beautiful people and beautiful potential.”

Long Miles Coffee 1

Photo by Zsuzsa Zicho, courtesy of Long Miles Coffee Project.

After working in the country for two years, Ben and Kristy bought a small piece of coffee land and built their first washing station, called Bukeye. That was eventually followed by two more washing stations, Heza and Ninga. Over the years, Long Miles has grown from working with 50 smallholder farmers to more 5,000 farmers on 11 hills in Burundi, keeping microlots separated so they can be traced to individual locations. 

In Western Kenya, Long Miles is continuing this work with Haron Wachira from Akili Holdings Ltd. After exploring the idea for a partnership in 2017, the partners have since refurbished the Thunguri Coffee washing station in Kirinyaga County, Mount Kenya. 

“The coffee profiles of this region are full-bodied and sometimes chocolatey, but they still have the acidity and black currant that people love,” Ben Carlson said. “It’s a 14-hour drive from Nairobi, and the coffee harvest is about a month later than central. Whenever people get a sample, they assume it’s old crop, but it’s the best crop. It just has different timing.”

While Long Miles is not actively producing coffees in the region, the company has hired local staff and agronomists to work with a group of farmers in the Mount Elgon region. This is the first year Long Miles will be exporting green coffees from the Western Kenya cooperatives. 

Long Miles Coffee 2

Photo by Zsuzsa Zicho, courtesy of Long Miles Coffee Project.

“It’s early stages. It’s not Long Miles-produced, but Long Miles helping farmers. It’s really good coffee that has a really good taste. It’s exciting to see where this is going to go,” Carlson said. “We’re trying to create more value and create a more quality-produced coffee.”

Here’s more from DCN’s recent conversation with Ben Carlson…

[Note: Some answers may have been shortened for clarity.]

What about coffee excites you most?

Coffee is relational. Long Miles Coffee scouts build deep relationships with thousands of farming families. Our production team is made up of hundreds of individuals that have built great relationships over our 12 years of producing coffee in Burundi. 

And then on the last mile of the journey, we get to build deep and meaningful relationships with some of the world’s best roasters. I’m people and relationship driven and motivated. Each individual in this process is important, and all these relationships exist because of coffee. 

What about coffee troubles you most?

It’s so fragile. Over 12 years of producing coffee, I keep seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — that light being LMC being a financially successful and scaling company that is out of startup mode. I don’t see the reality of moving out of startup mode yet, and that troubles me. We can weather one bad year of rain, but we got hit with three years in a row (2019-2021). That was heartbreaking and devastated many farmers’ lives as well as lots of producers. 

We need good working capital finance, and the banks and financial instruments that exist really don’t work for East African small coffee producers. There is too much risk — too much collateral needed… Insecurity and a couple of bad weather patterns and we could see farmers not only uprooting their coffee, but pulling children out of school, and hunger taking hold in a way that the West just can’t comprehend. With that scarcity mindset lingering, I have some real anxiety over how to ensure the 100+ full time Long Miles employees and thousands of farmers that we work with have a secure future.

Can we somehow wrestle the financial security back into producers hands? 

What would you be doing if it weren’t for coffee?

I would want to do something in regenerative agriculture, forestry and reforestation to see why carbon projects don’t work and why people abuse government facilities. I wouldn’t want to overstep and take on the whole world, but again, start with a community and make a change in that one community. 

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