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The Doi Chaang tale of green coffee beans and enlightened business

Since the financial crash of 2008 there has been much talk of a crisis of capitalism or at least a particular type of capitalism. Fairtrade is sometimes quoted as an alternative and it’s something that we’ve endorsed for many years. But if you were looking for an example of how a developed world enterprise and a third world coffee farming community could collaborate to go “Beyond Fair Trade” and enhance the lives of thousands of rural Thai people, you’d be hard pressed to find a more inspirational story than that of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company. Not only have they transformed an entire mountain community but they also happen to produce a truly distinctive organic, single-estate Arabica coffee.

The Doi Chaang coffee story started in 1983 in the  Doi Chaang (literally meaning Elephant Mountain) province in the mountainous region of northern Thailand, where the altitude ranges between 1200-1600 metres above sea level.  For centuries, this has been home to the Akha tribe, a peaceful and cultured people who were victims of deprivation and ignorance. Piko Saedoo, the head of the Akha tribe’s largest and most prominent family, started cultivating coffee after the monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej introduced an initiative to encourage farmers to switch from opium farming to coffee cultivation – these were known as the Royal Initiatives and they also aimed to eliminate the environmentally damaging practice of slash and burn horticulture. The tribal communities had lived at a subsistence level over the centuries but as their population increased during the 20th century, they found it harder and harder to survive and many were forced to turn to opium production. Communities started to break down and the future looked bleak.

That was until, under Piko’s leadership, the practice of coffee farming grew widespread amongst the tribal families living across an 8,000 acre area. Over the following 10 years, the Akha families became skilled producers but they had one big problem – they were producing a premium product for which shrewd coffee dealers would only pay them a bargain basement price. They weren’t getting a fair deal and they knew it. What they needed was someone who was experienced in business. Someone like Wicha Promyong.

Wicha had been a successful businessman in Thailand and abroad too – he knew his way around and he could see that the tribal families needed to work together under a single company that could negotiate from a stronger position and improve productivity and quality. He also saw something in the ‘Akha Way’ – the tribes’ belief in a moral, spiritual and social connection between land and family – that appealed to him at a philosophical level. At Piko’s request, Wicha joined the Akha community and formed the Doi Chaang Coffee Original Company. Since then he has embraced the tribal way of life and dedicated himself to the improvement of the families’ welfare through a series of inspiring initiatives. More of those later.

During the next few years the company made great progress in terms of production and domestic sales. It developed a reputation for high quality, locally sourced coffee. Money started to flow into the community and it reinvested it in new plantations and processing. Over time it achieved a dominant market position in the Thai coffee market with distribution via supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and food stores. Production increased still further and the next logical step was to export internationally. This was when an introduction to a Canadian businessman, John Darch in 2006 was to prove especially fortuitous. Wicha met John at the behest of the Doi Chaang general manager, Pornprapa Bunmusik. John wasn’t a coffee expert but had experience of building successful businesses and of raising finance. He also had old fashioned business ethics and he shared Wicha’s vision of creating a better way of life for the Akha people.

What happened next is extraordinary.

Typically, the production and marketing of coffee is done by separate businesses. Farmers produce and sell to international companies at the best prices they can get and the big distribution companies sell on, often at more than healthy profits.

Rather than follow this model, John and Wicha agreed a unique collaboration whereby the Akha farmers would retain 100% ownership of production and, crucially, a 50% stake at no financial cost in a new Vancouver based affiliate company, the Doi Chaang Coffee Company (DCCC). The DCCC pays the farmers “Beyond Fair Trade” prices for their beans and they get an income from the profits earned through the sale of their coffees across the globe. The DCCC funds itself 100% so the farmers bear no additional financial risk. The DCCC’s mission is to be profitable without exploiting the farmers and to find a balance.

By combining the Canadian team’s expertise in marketing, sales and distribution with the quality of the community, certified organic, fairtrade Arabica coffee, the DCCC has grown sales from $72000 in 2006 to over $2million. Distribution is now strong in North America, Australia and the UK where D R Wakefield is the sole importer. DR Wakefield’s supplies the best & most essential green coffee beans bringing grower & roaster together with a special focus on sustainability, traceability, standards and quality – at fair coffee prices.

How has this benefitted the Akha farmers and their families? They now have funds flowing back into the community. Funds that they have invested in running water, electricity, a sewage system, medical clinic and small school – the whole community has gained from the venture. Not a penny of this was charity – it has all been achieved as a result of their labour and their ground-breaking collaboration with the DCCC.

In 2007 the DCCC set up its own Academy of Coffee. Farmers learn about cultivating, the global coffee industry and the importance of achieving a balance between the environmental impact of farming and its economic benefits. They are taught about the value of education (the Akha culture is spoken, not written), health, hygiene and finance. So far, over 4000 farmers have been educated by the academy.

And what of their coffee?

It’s single estate, premium, fairtrade, organic Arabica is the only one of its kind available from Thailand. It has been recognised internationally and is now rated in the top 1% across the world:

  • Aged single estate peaberry
  • Wild civet
  • Peaberry
  • Premium A
  • Premium AA
  • Semi washed process
  • Fully washed process
  • Swiss Water De-caffeinated
  • All are hand picked, sun dried, hand sorted
  • Certified organic and Fairtrade. Fully traceable
  • Harvested November-March
  • Altitude 1200-1600m

DR Wakefield is the sole UK importer.

Retailers include Harrods in Knightsbridge, Algerian Coffee Stores London, Owens web retail, DJ Miles in Somerset, MacBeans in Aberdeen, Atkinson in Lancaster, Hartleys and Delilah coffees in Nottingham.