From Opium to Coffee, it takes a village
Photo Credit: Doi Chaang
by Agnes Chung
Why get a pittance for opium and live in fear when you can get premium for coffee and bask in peace…
The success of the Doi Chaang Coffee brand has brewed an inspiring social enterprise that has profoundly impacted the Akha people in a positive and meaningful way.
It began in Fall 2001 at a Christian high school fair in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s largest city in the golden triangle. Apa, a 15 year old from the Akha village of Doi Chang was asked to ‘bring something from her hometown to sell at her school event’, wrote Mark Pendergrast, author of Beyond Fair Trade.
Leehu, her father, offered Apa some of grandpa Piko’s homegrown roasted coffee beans. The brewed coffee was a hit at the fair. It sparked Adel (Apa’s uncle) to explore coffee as a promising option to alleviate his village’s poverty.
The stateless Akha people are migrants once regarded by Thai society as dirty, illiterate, lazy, poor, and often involved in immoral, criminal activities and opium-addicts. They barely have access to education, jobs, healthcare or basic utilities. Survival is dependent on subsistence farming, opium growing, which provided quick cash, and some tourism dollars.
Doi Chang: Quest for dignity and self-sufficiency
Adel didn’t know where to begin, so he consulted Wicha Promyong (or Wicha), a friend of his father Piko, Saedoo. Saedoo is the village leader whose image is on every Doi Chaang coffee bag today.
An adventurous world traveller and visionary entrepreneur, Wicha loved the Akhas and wanted to help them in their quest for dignity and self-sufficiency. He barely knew about the coffee process, but he was an intelligent, resourceful and determined man. The villagers were hard workers and willing to learn.
Five years later, Doi Chaang coffee brand enjoyed success in the Thai market. The extra ’a’ in the brand name represents ‘A-rated’ quality coffee from Doi Chang. Wicha was an ambitious man. He wanted Doi Chaang beans to gain worldwide recognition.
Bridge to Global Markets
Enter Vancouver mining entrepreneur, John M. Darch. Darch started out in commercial banking with UK NatWest and later Royal Bank of Canada. Moving on, he co-founded six public companies engaged in many natural resource projects spanning from North America, Africa to Asia.
One day, Darch’s Thai friend, Ponprapa Bunmusik suggested that he meet Wicha. Out of courtesy, Darch agreed and met with Wicha who described the Akha plights and his vision to help them switch from growing opium to coffee. He never asked for money, says Darch who was inspired by Wicha and Bunmusik’s selfless interests and aspirations to help improve the Akha lives.
On his visit to the village, Darch was moved by the stories, the determination and commitment of the villagers in developing a feasible business with their high-quality coffee. He pondered the words his mother wrote on the sign that hung on their front door growing up.
“I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” – Elizabeth Darch
Surprising find and business model
Neither Wicha nor Darch drink coffee. On his return home, Darch engaged a renowned coffee expert to test the beans, and discovered they were high grade Arabica coffee ranked among the top 1% of coffees worldwide.
Darch returned to Thailand with his son, John A. Darch Jr. and told Wicha, “I just want the ability to buy the beans. You keep ownership and control. We pay you a premium for your beans, better than fair trade price and gift you half the Canadian company. You focus on quality and quantity and you act as a cooperative. No individual gets rich but the whole community gets rich.”
“The agreement would provide the villagers enough to change their lives, and the Canadian company gift would give them dignity and a sense of pride. Wicha and I agreed that you never want to give poor farmers money. They lose their dignity and end up relying on it. They think it’s an entitlement,” explains Darch.
Success came 10 years later. Doi Chaang coffee (www.doichaangcoffee.com) won numerous awards for its ‘Beyond Fair Trade’ business model. “The luxury was that we had the financial ability and patience. What we did remains unique,” says Darch who adds the intent was for a commercially-successful venture, not a charity.
“Money is not the key, if you are going to develop something, do it with passion, but do it with a team – one person doesn’t do it all,” says Darch of his business model. Doi Chang villagers are now enrolled as Thai citizens, no longer fearful of isolation and deportation, and enjoy access to education, healthcare and basic infrastructure.
From opium slaves to coffee entrepreneurs, Doi Chang village’s transformation has been recognized by the Thai government as a successful role model for alternative livelihood development and combating opium production.
Coffee mission in Myanmar
Coffee production fever has spread across to neighbouring Myanmar. At Cherubim Company, their vision is to use agriculture and business as a vehicle to reach the Buddhist and unreached people group, while empowering them to escape poverty.
“All the denominations in Myanmar are agreeing to work with us, they will be planting coffee, and we just want to add value to their ministries,” shares Louise Sinclair-Peters at a recent presentation at Willingdon Church in Burnaby. Interested in investing: contact email@example.com.