When Coffee Really Is Life

“Baby diapers.” That’s how my traveling companion Yuji described the smell, as we approached the site. Once you get that image in your mind it’s hard to shake it. But indeed, the smell of coffee cherries going through the process of having their husks removed and the beans washed does have strong olfactory similarities to what goes on in a toddler’s diaper 35 minutes after eating lunch.

The smell of “baby diapers” or coffee processing is noticeable in many parts of the village of Doi Chang, high in the mountains above Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Doi Chang is an Akha village, a hilltribe living largely in Thailand, but also in neighboring Myanmar, Laos, and even southwest China. They are not Thai; they have their own language, their own culture, and for the most part, the Thai government won’t even grant most of them citizenship. They are stateless in the country they live in, and as such, are one of the poorest people groups in Asia, the average Akha living on less than $2.00 US per day.

But let’s say you come from one of the dozens of neighboring Akha villages to Doi Chang. To you, this modest little village of a few thousand people could look like New York City. Most of the roads are paved and well maintained. There is a school for children up to Jr. high school and a preschool for children younger than that. Nearly every family drives around in an expensive Toyota 4-wheel-drive truck. So what’s the difference here?

The difference, to put it simply, is coffee. Decades ago, this area of the world was known as the Golden Triangle, the meeting point of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The fertile lands of this region were productive for growing crops and the crop of choice in those days was the opium poppy. The drug trade took a terrible toll on both the countries involved and the hilltribes who were willing and unwilling participants. So the government of Thailand decided to give the hilltribes an alternative and funded a plan to give them a new crop to grow: coffee trees. Today, Thailand ranks 18th in the world in coffee production and coffee grown in the “Doi Chaang” region (note the extra ‘a’), is designated with a geographically protected trademark for its high level of quality.

The farmers of Doi Chang village are the primary producers of Doi Chaang regional coffee. Around the village, there are several smaller processing plants and one large one belonging to the major distributor known as “Doi Chaang Coffee” Company. When you’re the biggest, you get to own the name. Nearly every family in the village is growing, harvesting or processing coffee, most involved in multiple aspects. But only a few are running companies that are able to distribute the finished products: either raw beans ready to be roasted or roasted beans ready to be sold to retailers or consumers.

Our friend Pat is one of the few. His company, Abonzo Coffee, named after his grandfather who helped convince then reluctant Akha villagers to adopt coffee trees over opium poppies, is small by global standards. Even next to local competitor Doi Chaang Coffee, his production is a small fraction of theirs. He grows coffee on family owned land and purchases the rest from 25 local farmers who chose to sell to him. But while other coffee companies primarily exist to make money, Abonzo exists to help raise the Akha people out of their cycle of poverty.

Pat dreams of expanding his business into overseas markets, adding more farmers to his production and building a brand that is as respected for its devotion to social justice as it is to the quality of the coffee it produces. The cycle of poverty among the Akha, as it is among many impoverished people groups, is bonded with the lack of access to higher education. Doi Chang has a public school providing education up to Junior high school level, but getting an education beyond that means  a long daily commute down to the city and paying a tuition that most poor farmers cannot afford. Akha who are particularly well off send their children to live in dormitories in the city so they can go to school daily, but most can’t afford such “luxury”. But Pat doesn’t want the education of his people to be a luxury, but a necessity. He even aims to teach young Akha people business skills by providing them work and training in the coffee business beyond cherry picking and processing. He intends to build a cafe that will employ many young Akha and next to that, a barista training school that will give them means to learn a skill that is transferable to other jobs (Chiang Rai is the de facto coffee capital of Thailand and cafes are springing up all over the city).

The purpose of our trip to Doi Chang was to photograph the coffee production process of Abonzo Coffee along with a friend we brought from Tokyo who is working with several high-end cafes to potentially use Abonzo Coffee as their house brand here in Japan. As the Doi Chaang regional brand becomes more widely known, unscrupulous growers have been claiming to sell “Doi Chaang” regional beans when their beans are of inferior quality grown elsewhere. Our intent was to show Abonzo Coffee is a true Doi Chang village coffee company and that the beans Pat uses are authentically grown in the region. We also hand carried samples back to Japan to share with potential new customers.

So how does all of this tie back to missions? Interestingly enough, when I joined World Christian Fellowship as their Executive Director many years ago, I attended a prayer meeting where one of the participants mentioned the Akha people. They told the story of the Akha people’s plight of poverty, exploitation, and abuse by the countries they have settled in. In that moment, God laid a burden for the Akha on my heart. Though the Lord brought us to Japan to serve the Japanese, at the same time, He created a path for me to serve the Akha people through Pat and Abonzo Coffee, as well as our missionary friends serving in Northern Thailand. It’s amazing how the Lord opens doors for us to serve, and much of what He does goes on beyond what we can see or comprehend.

Join me in lifting up the plight of the Akha people and for young Akha leaders like Pat who desire both spiritual and socio-economic revival for their tribe. Heavenly Father, you know the names and struggles of each of your Akha children, and you desire to give them a life of abundance and not mere survival. Hear every cry and answer them, Lord God, and use others outside the tribe to have compassion and generosity toward them in the love of Christ Jesus. For you work righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed; You show compassion and mercy to all those who love you. Let your will be done among your people, the Akha. Amen.

2 thoughts on “When Coffee Really Is Life

  1. Todd, absolutely incredible story of a life that is making a massive impact.

    My non-profit coffee roasting company recently started selling Abonzo Coffee and I was wondering if it would be alright to use a few of your photos when talking about that coffee and all the work Pat is doing for God’s Kingdom in Northern Thailand.

    You can find out more about us at Yieldcoffee.com

    Thanks so much Todd. Keep up the excellent work.

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