CHIANG RAI – Organic coffee has helped the hill people of north-eastern Thailand, once impoverished and marginalised, build a viable economy and self-sufficient community.
WICHA Promyong does not offer any platitudes about the success of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company or why its product is rated in the top 1% of coffees worldwide.
Instead, in a quiet voice he will say, “I don’t know”, as though he cannot quite believe it himself.
Having been with the company for over a decade and now holding the position of president, Wicha is most certainly not in the dark. However, there was a time when the soft-spoken 63-year-old genuinely did not know anything about coffee – nor did he even drink the beverage.
After working for the Thai Government and running his own successful businesses, southern-born Wicha retired to Thailand’s north – to live “in the jungle” as he calls it. Twelve years ago, Piko Saedoo, an Akha hill tribe elder from the Doi Chang village (unlike the brand, the village name is spelt with only one “a”), approached him for help with their coffee production.
By then, Arabica coffee and fruit trees such as peaches and pears had been grown in the area, the infamous Golden Triangle, for 20 years to replace opium plants under a Thai royal project.
However, the indigenous Akha could not sell their goods.
“Most of the villagers didn’t have IDs (because they were born in the remote area and births could not be registered), so they were not allowed to bring their products down (from the mountain) to sell at the market,” says Wicha. This put them at the mercy of unscrupulous traders. “We had to find a way, any which way, for them to survive.”
Wicha saw the potential of coffee for the people of the village and decided he would learn as much as he could about the production of the bean. He spent four years consulting experienced producers around the region.
“The coffee was planted just in front of their houses, so we studied it.
“We went around to Indonesia, India and Myanmar to see how they processed their coffee. We studied a book written by the Dutch 60, 70 years ago on how Indonesia grows coffee. That’s how we started,” he says.
“It took four years to improve the quality. Then I sent a sample to Europe and North America, and they said ‘this is very good coffee’, so we started to expand. Slowly, slowly.”
That original enterprise started by the villagers of Doi Chang became the Doi Chaang Coffee Company when Wicha and Canadian businessman John Darch teamed up some time later. Funding came from the Darch’s family company, but they created the “Beyond Fair Trade” business model which granted the coffee farmers 50% ownership of the company and 100% of the proceeds from the sale of their beans.
This unique coffee partnership – which is still in place today – is internationally renowned and has won numerous awards and recognition as a role model for its economic viability and socially responsible business practices.
From 80ha, Doi Chaang coffee is now grown on more than 4,000ha, and the shack that once housed makeshift processing facilities has been replaced with mechanised equipment (all the machine parts had to be transported up the mountain piece by piece as there was no proper road before).
The coffee beans are still sorted by hand to ensure quality but now everyone in the village is a coffee expert. They used to earn US$0.50 per kilo; now it’s US$16 to US$20 (RM50 to RM65). From being well below the poverty line, they now earn enough to build a viable economy and self-sufficient community.
“And one thing I like, they have all stopped doing illegal things,” says Wicha. “No more drugs, and yeah, we are all happy.”
“But the story doesn’t end there”
“We do anything to make money from the land that we have,” says Wicha, which sounds mercenary until he explains.
“We never think that anything we get belongs to us. Even now, 30% of whatever proceeds we get, we give to the Doi Chaang Foundation. We have built a school, furnished the healthcare centre. We send all the children to school, to university. Whatever money we have, instead of reinvesting 100% of it, we keep some for the well-being of the community.
“We don’t want to be rich, we just want to be happy.” It’s easy to see why John Darch once described Wicha as a cross between a hippie and a monk.
(Although his is not the face on every packet of coffee – it’s Piko Saedoo’s – Wicha has been travelling the world to promote the brand and is most identified with it. He is often addressed as Mr Doi Chaang, he says with a laugh.)
To provide further training for the coffee farmers, the company opened the Doi Chaang Coffee Academy in the village. It holds free seminars and courses on coffee farming, but also instructs on other matters such as personal health and finances.
“Now we support the cooperatives in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and the southern part of China as well. They come to Doi Chang to learn, and we send people there to help,” says Wicha.
Doi Chaang supplies a small amount of civet coffee every year – sometimes up to 300kg. All the proceeds are donated for reforestation efforts and to the area’s health centre.
(The coffee is only from wild civet. But when Wicha found out that some people were caging the animals, he put a stop to it.)
The good soil and weather of Doi Chang, about an hour’s drive from the city of Chiang Rai, provides the villagers with other sources of revenue, too. The native trees that were cut down for the opium fields have been replanted, providing a canopy for the shade-loving Arabica coffee beans. Wicha also introduced macadamia trees to the area and now the nuts are exported all over the world, even to Australia where it is an indigenous plant.
To diversify, the company is moving beyond coffee as a beverage.
“We are experimenting with many channels – right now we make soap from the grounds and coffee blossom honey. We’re also looking into making cosmetics and a bath and body product line,” says Wicha.
Millions of baht have been set aside for a childcare centre and a big school for the children in and around the area. Land has been purchased and Wicha is awaiting permission from the authorities to start building.
He says that none of these projects has received financial support from the Thai Government.
“We’ve done everything on our own, we’ve spent our own money on making life better for the people in the area.
“We have been able to do it just by selling coffee.”