Northern Thailand Update – Abonzo Coffee

A group of people from our church and sister church, including our pastor and I, returned from a whirlwind mission trip to Northern Thailand arriving in Japan a little after 6am. As was the case for our previous two trips, we split our ministry time between our Akha friend running a coffee production business in his hilltribe village and participating in the ministry activities of a missionary family our church conference supports, mainly working with the children of the various hilltribes in the area. Since there is much to process and write about, I am splitting my reflections into two entries. This one will be about Pat, our coffee producing friend and Akha hilltribe member.

In 2015, we stood on a hill overlooking the valley where the Akha village of Doi Chang was nestled among acres of fertile soil and abundant coffee trees. The coffee trees were a gift from the King of Thailand in the 1970s as a way to give the Akha an alternative to opium production. Today, the wisdom of the King is evident in the fact that the Doi Chaang (different spelling for the coffee growing region) region produces an abundance of some of the best coffee in the world and kept many Akha people out of the drug trade.

As we stood on that hill, our friend Pat described his vision for the land, which at this point, he did not own nor did he know how he would be able to purchase it. He pointed out where his Abonzo Coffee cafe would be built, and next to it a roasting facility. Above that, a processing plant for washing and drying beans. And all of his Abonzo Coffee employees would be young people from his tribe who would learn and use skills from his company and earn a fair wage to help support their families. And together we prayed for his vision.

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Nearly a year later to the day in 2016, we again stood on the land which was now owned by Pat and had a large parcel cleared and flattened, ready to be built on. Again, we prayed together for the Lord’s blessing on Pat and his vision.

And this past week, once again we stood on Pat’s land, where his cafe and roasting building was more than half completed and land was cleared and ready for building a small processing plant. About a kilometer away down the mountain, a larger processing plant was already completed and producing hundreds of kilos of coffee beans every day.

It is here we should note that four years ago, Pat started with not much more than his family’s coffee farm, some basic knowledge of how to process coffee, and a clear vision from the Lord on how to help his people rise out of poverty. Today, he is on the verge of becoming one of the few major producers of coffee in the Doi Chaang region behind only the cash rich competitor bought last year by a major Thai corporation. The Lord’s favor is on Pat and he is moving, often on faith alone, toward the vision the Lord gave him years ago. He started buying land and building structures not knowing if he would have the capital to finish, but God has always provided and Pat has faith that He will continue to provide, so he presses on.

Pat’s parents work full days on the farm alongside other workers, climbing up and down the steep slopes picking coffee cherries by the tens of kilos per day. The day we visited the farm 10 laborers including Pat’s parents, picked 660 kg of coffee cherries in an 8 hour day. The work is hard enough to make young men break down and cry, but there are no tears from the Akha people during the work day, just chatter and laughter and singing traditional songs together.

The taste of Doi Chang coffee is earthy and complex. One could imagine the spirit of the Akha people has somehow been transfused into the crop that at one time saved their tribe and they now count on for survival. But where there is money to be made, there are always those who will come, willing to exploit people and land for profit. So it takes men and women like Pat to defend the rights of the Akha people for an honest wage and fair dealing in land use (technically, the Akha are considered aliens in Thailand and have no legal ownership of land).

We continue to pray for Pat and others like him who have a vision for the Akha people of Thailand, as well as neighboring countries, that aligns with the way God Himself would care for His people. A vision that sets them free from the bondage of drug and human trafficking, substance abuse, and hopelessness in poverty. A vision where the Akha people outside of Thailand can hear and respond to the gospel as strongly as those inside Thailand. A vision where a young man headed down the wrong path can have his life turned around by Christ to be a spiritual and business leader in his community.

An Inspired Gift

Recently I was rushing around doing our last minute お土産omiyage (gift) shopping for our friends and family back in California. I stopped in one shop to admire some delicious looking jams and jellies from a company called St. Cousair. Looking closely at the label, I noticed something interesting: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” John 15:5

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As I browsed through other products made by St. Cousair, I noticed the verse appeared on every label. After purchasing some Earl Grey tea and some little jars of  ゆずyuzu marmalade (made from a citrus that tastes like a cross between orange and lemon) and いちじくichijiku fig jam, I hurried home to check out the company online.

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Sure enough, on the English page of their website, Mrs. Kuze speaks plainly about the faith of her and her husband and how committing to run their struggling company by Biblical principles turned everything around for them. With business booming and distribution all over Japan, the Kuze’s decided to build a church on the site of their winery. Unlike many “churches” in Japan which are merely beautiful buildings for young Japanese people to hold a wedding, theirs is a real church with services every Sunday. Mrs. Kuze is a seminary graduate and pastors the church there. Since its completion in 2005, over 100 people have been baptized there, a phenomenal number for a rural Japanese church.

In a nation where less than 1% of the population professes a Christian faith, it is rare to find a company that presents Christianity so plainly to its customers. Yes, there have been several prominent Christian companies in Japan (Morinaga, the huge confectionery and dairy company was founded by Christian Taichiro Morinaga, grandfather of Akie Abe, first lady of Japan), but few that are so direct about their faith. One could call St. Cousair the “In-n-Out of Japan” and not be far off.

In any case, I am proud to be able to give such a precious gift to a friend back in California. While the gift is but a token, the story behind it is inspiring. It’s an honor to be able to support a company with a vision to share the gospel like St. Cousair.

Visit the St. Cousair webpage in English or in Japanese.

The Bright Stars of a Future Japan

One of the pleasures of working with International students in California was becoming friends with “special” students. Yes, all students are special, but we would sometimes meet extraordinary students who had a passion for life and learning. Some International students study in America because it’s easier or less stressful than staying in their home country and treat their stay as a long vacation. But others come to fully embrace learning about a new culture and language in the short time they have. They take every opportunity to explore, to make friends outside of their own culture and immerse themselves in the English language.

While we lived in California, I only saw half of the picture: how these students behaved while living overseas. But moving to Japan and reconnecting with some of our exceptional student friends, I have had the chance to see the other half of the picture: how these students use what they learned studying abroad in their lives in Japan. And I am so impressed with what I have seen.

Here are a few examples from some of our students we had English conversation groups with or spent time with in other ways.

Jun is working for the Japan League Soccer Association and regularly using his English skills to help communicate with foreign professional soccer clubs and translate contracts for players wishing to play overseas.

Saya and Nana are working at a growing company developing tools to teach people English. Saya even got me some contract work doing voice-over for one of the tests they are developing.

Another Jun worked hard on improving his English and got a job last summer translating for the visiting Brunei national soccer team while they visited and played in Japan.

Mitsu is finishing his degree at Waseda University and working part time for a start-up company.

Now that we live in Japan, it’s more difficult for us to find these exceptional young Japanese people who want to have a positive impact on the future of Japan, though we know they are around us. Fortunately, my friend Steve Sakanashi has brought a company to Japan to attract exactly that kind of person.

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Sekai Creator started in Seattle as a course teaching leadership and entrepreneurial skills to Japanese international students studying at local universities, but Steve’s vision was to reach more potential leaders of the new Japanese economy by bringing the program to Japan. In mid-May, he finally realized his dream by launching his course in Tokyo.

Steve asked me to photograph the launch event which was attended by over 35 bright young stars of the future. They came from various universities across Tokyo to hear about the six-week program which will give them hands-on training in being an entrepreneur and experiencing every role necessary to bring a new product to market. Steve brings in experts in various areas of business to share their knowledge with the students, but the students are required to develop a product, market it and make a 50,000 yen (about $500) profit in the six-week period. It is a difficult task, but the challenge pushes the limits of the students’s abilities and helps them to learn through experience, success and failure.

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The kick-off party was appropriately held at Ryozan Park, a beautiful community workplace where people can rent shared office space to collaborate and network with others. Though not inspired by Sekai Creator, the concept of Ryozan Park definitely fits the mold of what Steve would like his students to create in Japan.

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At the party, I had the privilege of meeting and talking to many extraordinary students, learning their stories and seeing a glimpse into the future of Japan. And I like what I see in them.

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Congratulations to Steve and his team on realizing their dream of launching Sekai Creator in Tokyo. I look forward to seeing how Sekai Creator inspires the young people in Japan to break out of the traditional thinking patterns of Japanese business that are hindering the economy and innovation of this otherwise amazing country.