This past weekend, we had the pleasure of visiting the farm fields of a local Chiang Mai fair trade coffee producer, Akha Ama. (Akha Ama means "Akha Mother" in the Akha hill tribe language) While we learned a great deal about the process of making coffee from the farm to the cup, the real story is the people behind the beans that go into each cup of joe.
The story of this coffee starts a long time ago the 1940s in the middle of a civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang. In the altitudes of the southern mountains of China live the Akha people in villages spread out on the slopes. As the fighting got worse between the two factions fighting for government power, many of the Akha people fled south out of the country by foot. Many walked to Myanmar, many made it to Laos, and some continued the trek southward into Thailand where they still are today. One of the many that made the trek is Meelaw, who is the Akha mother (aka "Akha Ama") whose face is on each bag of Akha Ama coffee.
Meelaw with her grandson
In Thailand, many of the Akha continued to be subsistence farmers while keeping their traditions and language alive. As was common during the time in those areas of Burma, Thailand, and Laos (collectively known as the Golden Triangle), many of the Akha began growing opium in order to make ends meet. While the trade of opium is a huge international business, generating millions of dollars a year, the Akha still made very little money from its production. As farmers, they were the end of the opium supply chain and their crops were bought for way less than their final value. While traffickers and dealers made a lot of money on the illegal trade, the Akha continued to eke out a living.
The Introduction of Coffee
The large scale trading of opium is not good for any country, so to help alleviate some of these problems, in the 1990s, the royal family of Thailand began projects to help phase out the production of opium in the region. One of the projects was to provide other sources of income by replacing the opium crops with other tradable crops, such as orchids. One of the crops introduced was coffee.
Coffee "cherries" from one of the Akha farms
While the coffee was a suitable replacement, growing quite well in the micro-climates of the Thai mountains, the Akha people were still reaping very little of its profits. Technically, coffee is considered fresh produce, but in an economic sense it is considered a commodity. This means it is bought and sold in the same way as oil or gold. As such, the goal of any coffee buyer is to buy at the lowest possible price and sell for the most, with coffee speculators and investors deciding on the price based on the worldwide coffee market. So, while a large cup of coffee at Starbuck's might cost you $2, one kilogram of raw coffee beans (or "cherries" as they're called) would be bought for around $0.07.
Reading this, you might be wondering why they just didn't ask more for their coffee. First, many times they simply didn't have a choice. Every year the coffee buyers would show up after the coffee was harvested and offer a price for the whole crop. If they didn't want the price given to them, that was fine with the buyers, but by saying "no" they risked the chance of not selling any of that year's coffee harvest. Or they risked the chance that if they didn't sell soon enough, the beans would spoil and be un-sellable.
Second, most of the farmers were not educated enough to bargain properly. Many of them did not speak very good Thai, as the Akha language, one of the many Tibetan-Burman languages, bears no relation to it. They were also not aware of the global selling price for coffee or how much they could be getting for their crops. All they knew was that they had the choice of selling their crop for something or losing it for nothing.
While Meelaw (our "Akha Ama") did not have the chance to be formally educated, she made sure that her family was. She sent her first son, Lee, off to a Buddhist school to get a better education than she had. At the school, he improved his Thai and started picking up English along the way. To improve his English conversational skills, he would spend hours at one of the Buddhist temples frequently visited by foreign tourists and start a conversation with them. He jokes that many of them thought he was crazy, but fortunately, many more stopped to chat with the eager, yet timid teenager.
Lee explains the coffee process
After he graduated from his Buddhist school, he was admitted into college where he continued his learning. On the weekends, he would travel back to his home village and study by candle light as his village did not have electricity yet. As a habit from learning Thai and English, he read his books out loud to practice his pronunciation. Because he was up studying late at night in such a loud manner, his neighbors had to yell at him to keep it down so that they could get some sleep.
Lee went on to graduate college, becoming the first in his village to do so. He moved on to working for an NGO, but couldn't shake the sense that he could do more for his people. He liked his job and what he was doing, but he felt his energies could be used best in creating a sustainable way to support his Akha village.
The Birth of a New Coffee Brand
So, 8 months ago, he quit his job to start Akha Ama coffee. His goal is not to become rich, but to simply have a sustainable and fair means for his village to make a living and keep up with the rest of the world. In just a short amount of time, he has 1) convinced a number of farmers to adopt organic farming techniques and replace chemical fertilizers with natural ones from compost heaps 2) started buying some of the coffee at a fair price with promises to do it more once he has the revenue to do so 3) introduced integrated farming techniques so that in addition to coffee, the farmers are growing an array of fruit and vegetables on the same land in order to diversify their crops and 4) made a partnership with a local roaster to roast the beans to their final form.
Lee's brother inspects the coffee "green beans" after they are de-shelled.
On the business side, he has made a lot of strides as well. His small coffee shop in Chiang Mai, has generated a loyal stream of foreign expats who drink his coffee nearly every day. For this small group of coffee sommeliers, he has one of the best brews in town and he is always a good source for coffee-related knowledge and tidbits that keep them coming back. Locals can also find his coffee sold in local, upscale supermarkets, where Lee acts as the distributor as well, bringing all the coffee to the stores himself.
The road ahead
In 8 short months, Lee has done a lot to build his burgeoning business, but there is still a long way to go. There are still many farmers to convince that in the long term, his vision for their coffee will be better. As a new business, he does not have the cash to buy up large amounts of coffee at once, so some farmers are still selling to the coffee buyers who will give them cash in hand for their whole crop on the spot. Many times to sweeten the deal, the coffee buyers will also give out fertilizers to the farmers as well, which makes it more difficult for Lee to convince the farmers to go organic.
There is also the problem of getting his coffee to the right market. While Thailand itself produces some fine coffee, Thais are relatively new to the drink and don't have the discerning palette that some Europeans or Americans would have. They generally buy on price and not on quality making it difficult for Lee to sell his premium coffee to the Thai market. Lee is looking to export his coffee to places more suitable, like the EU and USA, but that presents another set of difficulties. Selling coffee in foreign markets as certified organic and free-trade requires a lot of time and money. For each certification, Lee must pay thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to apply for the certification and fly in experts to complete the certification. This is a large sum of money for any small company, especially one in Thailand.
To raise the money, Lee has been organizing educational trips to the farms and holding movie screenings, where he sells his coffee and vision to all that will listen. Doing it this way avoids taking loans from a bank, which can be a major liability: failing to pay back a bank loan could mean that the banks would own the coffee farmland, permanently damaging the future of his friends and family that he grew up with. So far, though, things seem to be going well: he's had exposure in the Bangkok Post newspaper as well as in a very popular Asian food blog. Progress is continuing and with enough support, he'll be able to be certified next year and be able to sell his coffee as certified free trade and organic.
The Future of the Akha Village
Of course, the real test is to see what will happen to the Akha community that Lee grew up in. Taking a walk around town, you can see the many young faces that will be the future of the village. These are the people that will benefit the most from a fair coffee price as they will be the recipients of a better education and more resources. Will they grow up being able to access the same education and resources as most Thais? Or will they be stuck in a cycle of continually working for less pay than they deserve? Only time will tell...
Lee's brother and 5 month-old nephew having fun outside.
What you can do
You can visit Akha Ama on their website (www.akhaama.com) or on their Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Akha-Ama-Coffee/142727984467) where you can find information on upcoming ways to help support them. If you're ever in the Chiang Mai area, you should definitely get in contact to see what they have coming up and stop into their coffee shop.
If you drink coffee at home, shell out the extra change to buy fair trade. It's a little extra money for you, but it does a lot to help the communities where the coffee grows around the world. As a consumer, you are the ultimate decider in how the coffee industry works.