by John M. Darch
For more than three decades, I have been involved
with numerous natural resource projects in North America, Africa
and Asia, meeting many interesting (and sometimes unsavoury) people.
None, however, compare with the intriguing and friendly Thais. Like
most Western entrepreneurs in Thailand, I was mostly involved with
the established business society. It was not until 2006 when my
Thai friend Ponprapa Bunmusik introduced me to the Akha hill tribe
people of Doi Chaang near Chiang Rai and I spent time with them
that I began to understand their struggle for dignity and their
desire to be more than a tourist attraction.
Their story seemed incredulous: a hill tribe living in Doi Chaang
Village (primarily of Akha heritage) had, through sheer determination
and dedication, created a viable business cultivating an outstanding
quality coffee. I was surprised that coffee was even grown in Thailand,
never mind that it was being achieved with no government assistance
I learned that the villagers wanted to expand their business internationally
and my friend wondered if I would be interested in another Thai
business venture. I agreed to meet them out of politeness and was
introduced to Khun Wicha Promyong, the man responsible for leading
the Akha tribe in their quest to be self-sufficient. Wicha, a former
world-travelled entrepreneur, comes from southern Thailand and having
enjoyed the privileges of education, healthcare and wealth, he gave
all of it up more than 30 years ago to live and travel with Thailands
hill tribes. His home is now with his people, the Akha
hill tribe in Doi Chaang village and his mission is
to help them have dignity and to become self-sustaining.
L to R: Brother Wicha, Doi Chaang village leader Piko
Saedoo, John M. Darch
When we met in Bangkok, Wicha explained how the many hill tribes
originally migrated from southwestern China, eventually settling
in scattered, isolated communities in the mountainous regions of
Laos, Vietnam and Northern Thailand. Apparently, at one time, the
hill tribes of Northern Thailand sustained themselves through slash
and burn horticulture, but the increased population of the last
century depleted the land and many of the hill tribes resorted to
cultivating opium for survival.
Rich in culture and tradition, shrouded in myth and legend, the
Akha people have no official written language, but maintain a detailed,
oral history and live life according to the Akha Way,
a spiritual, moral and social philosophy that governs behaviour
and emphasizes strong ties to land and family. Yet, of all the hill
tribes, few were as downtrodden, shunned or as impoverished as the
Traditional handcrafted Akha Silver Headdress for ceremonial
occasions such as marriage and harvest.
Arriving at Doi Chaang village (literal translation: Elephant Mountain),
I was expecting the familiar destitute village that had become the
symbol of the typical hill tribe community. However, here was an
energetic farming community, complete with rudimentary electricity,
running water, a school and a medical clinic. Some 20 years ago,
in the hope of steering hill tribes away from cultivating opium,
His Majesty the King of Thailand directed the farmers be given coffee
plants. Sadly, because the farmers were acting independently and
were inexperienced in business practice, their lives barely improved.
To sell his beans, each farmer had to transport them some 70 kilometres
to Chiang Rai, the nearest city, where the international coffee
dealers kept the farmers divided and paid them minimal prices. In
frustration, the Akha villagers turned to Wicha, who lived in Chiang
Rai, for help. As a first step, Wicha encouraged all the Doi Chaang
farmers to become a co-operative, thereby making it impossible for
the coffee dealers to play one family against another. His next
focus was educating the farmers in the importance of quality and
productivity. In just over six years, this once small, isolated,
poor village was transformed.
In my meeting with Wicha, he pointed out where clear-cut sections
from past farming practice are now being reforested with a variety
of trees, bushes and plants. The reforestation supports the production
of various crops, which not only provide food, but are also sold
to help support and diversify the villages economy. This cultivation
method maintains soil quality, as the canopy protects against the
sun and the rain and eliminates the need for continuous weeding
and the use of harmful chemicals. The result is rich, fertile soil
that sustains diverse crop production for present and future generations.
I couldnt help but feel somewhat guilty. My own business ventures
have been in natural resource development where the resources are
eventually depleted, projects with a finite life that has inevitable
consequences for employees and their families. I was now presented
with a business that could expand without depleting resources or
exploiting workers and their families. So what did the people want
with me? Wicha didnt ask me for money and I didnt offer.
Instead, he wanted a business relationship for his people. As I
learned, Doi Chaangs success was such that production had
exceeded demand in Thailand, and Wicha, forever the visionary, wanted
me to introduce their coffee to the North American market. There
were two conditions: to ensure the villagers self-esteem,
their coffee had to be sold under the name Doi Chaang (Elephant
Mountain) and the label had to bear the words single-origin.
It is important to understand that these people do not want charity,
but a fair price for their coffee. The Akha farmers told me they
want people to buy their coffee for the quality, not
out of sympathy, as beyond improving their lifestyle; the most important
thing to these people is respect and recognition of their achievements.
Wicha told me that international investors and coffee buyers constantly
approach these people, looking to invest and control their coffee
production. Their intent is to blend the beans with other coffees
and market them under a different name because Doi Chaang
sounds too ethnic. The potential buyers argue that they must have
control and that it would be too expensive and difficult to market
internationally a single-origin, Arabica coffee from Thailand, essentially
unknown outside Asia.
I was captivated and immediately contacted Wayne Fallis, a colleague
in Canada with extensive experience in food exporting and importing.
I convinced him that I had found a project that would offer more
than a financial return. We then sought the opinion of Calgary-based,
Shawn MacDonald, well known for his extensive knowledge of coffee.
MacDonald not only confirmed that Doi Chaang Coffee was a world
class coffee, but he agreed to join our venture as Roast Master
and vice-president of operations. And so we began what is probably
a unique business arrangement in the coffee world. The farmers maintain
total ownership and control of their own Thai company and domestic
sales. In addition, they would also have a carried 50
percent interest in the Vancouver and Calgary based Canadian company,
Doi Chaang Coffee Company, created to roast and distribute Doi Chaang
coffee in North America. My colleague and I agreed to personally
provide 100 percent of the finance required for all aspects of the
Canadian operation leaving the hill tribe to focus on production,
quality control and expansion.
This structure provides the hill tribe people with a no-lose business
arrangement. We buy the green beans from the farmers, for cash,
at a price in excess of the recommended price, which gives them
an immediate profit and the ability to continue their coffee production.
And because of the ownership in Doi Chaang Coffee Company, they
also receive 50 percent of the Canadian companys profits without
any cost to them.
I am proud of how the Akha farmers use their coffee revenues to
improve the standard of living for their community and the quality
of their coffee. Having been isolated and impoverished for so long,
they are now recognized and praised for their achievements, held
up by Thailand officials as a role model for other hill
tribe communities. In 2007, the farmers demonstrated their commitment
to their community by building the Doi Chaang Coffee Academy, at
their own expense. All hill tribe farmers may attend at no cost
to learn about co-operative business practices, diverse crop production,
quality control and sustainable agriculture. The farmers are also
taught personal money management skills and the importance of education
and healthcare. The ultimate goal is for the hill tribes to be accepted
and welcomed as productive, contributing members of Thai society.
I am determined to make Doi Chaang Coffee a success in North America
because I strongly believe that this is an alternative and viable
way of doing business with the coffee farmers. I believe in the
Akha hill tribes courage to persevere and I believe in their
determination to better themselves and take control of their own
future. I believe in their children, their community, their potential
and their ability to sustain and grow their own business without
any negative impact on their culture, community or environment.
John Darch is the chairman of Doi Chaang Coffee in Canada.