Chiangrai Times –In recent years, small businesses, especially coffee and bakery shops, have been popping up on many corners and plazas in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital.
The desire for a cup of coffee and a snack seems to be an ever-increasing trend among upwardly mobile Thais and the plethora of expats rushing to relocate to villages surrounding this large and culturally significant city.
Amid the proliferation there is Akha Ama Coffee, owned and run by Lee Ayu Chuepa, a young-looking 26-year-old Akha tribesman who is full of passion for raising income and the quality of life for his tribal fellows.
“The idea for Akha Ama coffee was truly inspired and developed to help my people earn a decent income from growing and processing coffee and achieving fair trade principles,” said Mr Lee.
Born and raised in the northern mountain village of Mae Jantai in Chiang Rai province, his journey began when he told his parents that he wanted to further his studies.
At a temple in Lamphun, he learned to speak Thai and some English. He later attended university, a feat no one else in his village had ever achieved.
He did an internship at Child’s Dream Foundation, then became a full-time staffer for three years.
While working, Mr Lee was haunted by a dream of his own _ a passion to help poor farmers in his village.
“I was privileged to be the only person from my village to go to university, and I felt guilty that others did not have this opportunity,” he said. “So I knew I should do something.”
He started to think about what his own village had to offer. What was an international product? What was long-lasting?
“Coffee, I realised, is a stable commodity and my village was already growing it. But the problem was that we received very little benefit from it. We had knowledge but we were not business-savvy,” said Mr Lee.
The brand Akha Ama (literally “Akha Mother”) emerged in 2010, partly supported by a social entrepreneurship grant.
A year after, Mr Lee broadened his idea to tribal fellows to improve their cultivation methods using modern technology. He found that by educating the village coffee growers to produce a quality product, he could raise the selling price _ and the revenue gained by the farmers would rise in turn.
Once a quality coffee bean became available, Mr Lee entered an evaluation event in London called the World Cup Tasters Championship in 2010. As a result of the exposure, he received certification for the only Thai coffee brand currently submitted. The selling price of the coffee beans has increased.
“Since I started, I’ve heard about the superiority of different overseas coffee brands,” he said. “I thought good coffee doesn’t have to be foreign. This is Thai coffee, grown in Thailand and roasted here to be drunk in Thailand.
“And after our coffee was accepted and certified, the income of village people increased by more than 60%.”
The Akha Ama coffee shop sells 100-160 cups a day. For the coffee packages, average trade is 400 kilogrammes a month.
Despite the well-known reputation of Akha Ama coffee, Mr Lee does not want to franchise the business, mainly out of concern for quality control.
“We cannot afford to do the franchise due to the difficulty of management, the lack of staff and, of course, the quality of the coffee’s flavour,” he said.
“It’s not an easy task to control all the staff and produce a coffee menu that has exactly the same taste.”
Akha Ama coffee packages can be purchased at leading stores in Chiang Mai such as Rimping Supermarket and Kasem or by express mail throughout Thailand.
Mr Lee has no plans to rest. He has talked of increasing the number of branches in another province.
“We plan to expand our market to Bangkok. The issue now is not the quality of our coffee but the quantity, as the amount of our beans is quite limited,” he said.
With his coffee shop becoming popular, Mr Lee has turned his attention to improving living standards and education in the Akha villages.
“We cannot afford to be laid-back. In the next two or three years, as Asean opens up, the farmers will have to work harder. Otherwise, we’ll lose our opportunity since Indonesia and Vietnam are well-known for growing coffee.”
His other goal is to have consumers enjoy a fine cup of coffee originated, grown and processed by Thais and to realise the hard work and attention that village growers put in to supply coffee-drinking pleasure.
“It’s not just the money you spend for your favourite cup of coffee, but you also help the village people gain a better life,” Mr Lee added.