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How the men behind Doi Chaang became coffee suppliers extraordinary

Last month we wrote about the Doi Chaang Coffee Company  and the inspirational story of how it had helped to transform the lives of the impoverished Akha people in Northern Thailand through a unique joint venture that finances their development as green coffee bean farmers after years of opium growing and the decline of their community. So successful has the project been that its coffee is now stocked in exclusive retailers across the globe.

When John Darch, the founder of the Canadian company came to London with his son John to visit us recently (D R Wakefield is the sole UK supplier of Doi Chaang’s organic, fair-trade, Arabica coffee), we took the opportunity to interview him about the Doi Chaang project. We wanted to ask him how and why he got involved, what he was most proud of and where the project was heading.

The two John Darchs bustled into the D R Wakefield offices on a chilly Thursday afternoon, their warm smiles in contrast to the damp grey day outside.

John Jnr:  “I’m John.”

John Snr:  “I’m the other John” – an adopted Canadian twang lilting over an English accent.

John Jnr:  We are a family operation. Everyone has a nickname in the office. We don’t tell him what his is!!” 

John Snr:  Our vision and our goal is to try and create the name Doi Chaang with integrity and sustainability. It's a man and his dog. He is the man, I am the dog. (Points at John Jnr.)

John Snr continued:

“The story of Doi Chaang is an interesting one. My background is in mining and banking.  I spent a lot of time in Thailand in mining and then I met Wicha Promyong, an Akha tribesman who, unbeknown to me, had returned to the tribe after some success in business himself. He looked like a cross between a hippy and a monk – short, curly hair, earrings and I thought ‘how can I help this farmer?’”

I was taken by what Wicha told me about the Akha people, who are not strictly Thai but hill tribe people – descendents of tribes that have been moving round for many years and who were reliant on growing opium. They had really tried to make a difference by moving away from opium to growing organic green coffee beans and without any support – financial or otherwise.

We wanted to find a way we could help and give something back to Thailand – it had to be on a commercial basis though, otherwise it would all go wrong. The objective was to move the farmers beyond mere survival so we could help them to help themselves. It wasn’t to be politically, religiously or ethically motivated but to create a sustainable, long term community of farmers and high quality coffee suppliers.

First we had to assess whether it was a good coffee. We had it tested in the US and confirmed as very high quality. I then went back with John Jnr and started the relationship over 5 years ago. We decided to give the farmers a 50% stake in the company so that as well as earning a decent price for their green coffee beans, they would get a share of the profits earned from our distribution efforts. Since then the Doi Chaang Coffee Company has made a substantial investment in its operations and the villagers have benefited from improvements in their water supply, electricity, a play school for the very young children, library, school and a new road to the village built by the army.”

Why did you do it?

“Thailand had been good to me with a potash deposit. I spent a very long time working there and this was a way of giving back. The only way these hill tribe people were going to have a fighting chance was if they were given a helping hand.

I don’t believe charity is the best way to provide support – I wanted to go with an investment that ‘taught them how to fish’ not one that just ‘gave them fish’. This would empower them to make their own choices in terms of health, education and so on. It would not only help them but also their children which would then let them become sustainable as a people.

Our first fear was that the financial benefit would just go to the headman but it did not – it was well distributed by a group of elders.

When we started they had 200 acres of green coffee beans under production. We now have 3000 acres in production and 8,000 in total planted. I believe that the more you give back – the more you get back in return – this seems to show this philosophy working.

Wicha’s biggest piece of advice to the community was to “Stick with quality no matter what” – and it has paid off: we are rated in the top 1% of coffees globally.”

What’s planned next for Doi Chaang?

“Our next step is to develop the Canadian Doi Chaang foundation, where our goal is to raise 2 million dollars to aid in the building of the school, “Rong Rien Kong Noo”, translating in English to “Our School”, meaning that the school belongs to the children.   The school will be for children ages 2 – 9. The land for the school has already been purchased in trust and donated.  The school will offer education to nearly 400 children in the Doi Chang village and other surrounding village children; the school is not only for the Akha hill tribe. When “Our School” has been completed, the foundation will focus on providing necessary healthcare for the villagers, as well as maintaining a sustainable environment that continues to improve the lives of the villagers. Lastly, the foundation will focus on maintaining the cultures of the villagers in the area to preserve their traditions.”

Why are you doing the Doi Chaang Foundation?

“The Akha people spoke only their dialect so they were at a disadvantage in the wider community. They would escape the villages into the cities and land up with menial jobs or much worse – often prostitution and trafficking. (Some have one or no parent; 3 – 7 yr old girls are sold for prostitution. Boys sold for slave labour.) They have no recourse – go to the police – get taken back to the village – but they want to work to achieve and be proud. The first thing we were able to do was stop young people going to the cities – older kids that had left the village came back. Wicha said “We have to stop the children getting that far”.

We will provide accommodation for 100 kids. We will set up a transport system to pick up the kids from each of the villages and pay the village to provide 2 adults to help. The children will have a place where they can be safe and fed and learn.

Doi Chaang is now a model for Thailand on how the hill tribe people can live well and sustainably without trading opium. The government is supporting this and using it as an example and media coverage is really helping to fight the cause.”

A great story and it continues. If you’d like to hear John talking about the project, you can see him and Wicha on this video –