The first few coffee plants were introduced to the country and soils of Laos by French colonists around 1915. After trial and error of trying to harvest coffee beans in the north, the French realized that southern Laos was ideal for plantations. The south is also where the Bolaven Plateau lies, which remains as Laos’ primary region of coffee growing. The Bolaven Plateau is located in the area known as Paksong, where vegetation is lush all year around and waterfalls fall to the lowlands below. Not only does its rich volcanic soil serve as the reason for ideal coffee production, but so does its high altitude of up to 1400 meters and cool climate.
There are 20,000 coffee growing communities in 250 villages in Laos and many of these families depend on coffee farming as their sole source of income.
While Laos is a country which is capable of boasting about its high quality coffee beans, very few beans have made it to specialty coffee lovers arboad. As such, coffee farmers and communities in Laos still suffer under immense poverty with very few options..
WHO WE SUPPORT
We work with Lao coffee communities mainly comprised of the H’mong, Bo, K’Ho, and unnamed tribes.
WHERE IN LAOS
In the highlands area of Southern Laos in the Province of Champassak around Paksong village.
The communities we work with have had little experience with sustainable agriculture methods with regards to their coffee cultivation. Most of the coffee was planted after the “green revolution” took place, making many farmers dependent on pesticides/chemical fertilizers/monocropping. This creates an enormous health and economic cost. Additionally, Laos has a very intimate connection with their soil. Helping the communities to reestablish roots with sustainable agriculture is something that is not only honored, but seen as “holy” for many of the communities.
Additionally, many communities in Laos suffer under great livelihood stress. 40% of children under 5 years of age die from illness related to unsafe drinking water. Maternity services are limited and more than 25% of children die at birth. Unexploded mines from the Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos war remain in fields. Critical, life-sustaining hygiene is desperately needed.
WHAT WE ARE DOING TO HELP
2012 – 2014
- Coordinated a global coffee research program to test more than 30 new varieties of high-quality Arabica coffee in collaboration with the world’s leading coffee research institutes between the local and national Laos government, Lao’s coffee research center, and the only Lao-owned coffee cooperative, Jhai Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative.
- Assisted in renegotiation of current and future contracts for the cooperative (63 villages) based on the quality of their coffee. This resulted in a 58% increase in earned income across the cooperative.
- Led coffee cupping and sensory training (like one would do for fine wine) to teach the men and women of Laos to identify problems in coffee processing as well as to identify particularly tasty and “specialty” quality coffees being produced by their families.
- Introduced clean cook stoves for numerous families suffering chronic illness due to smoke inhalation from traditional charcoal/wood burning.
- Directly assisted the cooperative to build a relationship with one of the most socially responsible coffee importers in the United States…Look for Lao specialty coffee in the US starting in 2016.
- Trained numerous villages in 100% organic, permaculture coffee growing methods. Methods which focus on increasing income from biodiversity in the farm, increasing food security and ecological health, and transforming all wastes into valuable fees, fuels, and fertilizers.
- Initiated a cooperative wide seed bank program. Non-GMO, heirloom seeds for more than 100 fruits, vegetables, and grains are being tested in various villages to serve as the seed for food-security gardens and future market opportunities.
- Trained, assisted-in-design, and co-implemented Jhai Coffee House in partnership with the Jhai Foundation (Seattle, WA) and the Vibrant Village Foundation. This is a Lao-based and owned café serves as a training facility, office, and roasted/brewed specialty coffee facility for the 52 village cooperative to use and improve their livelihood. The Jhai Coffee House was established under a non-profit structure whereby all “profits” go back to clean water wells, home-based water filtration systems, sanitation/hygiene programs, and other community-driven development programs which are voted upon by the cooperative as a whole. However, clean water is the main focus as 45% of the deaths for children under 5 is directly related to inadequate access to clean drinking water.
- Trained the cooperative on proper coffee processing techniques, coffee storage techniques, and cooperative management.
- Improved cooperative-wide income by more than 64% and increased individual household income for cooperative farmers by up to 300%.
- Assistance to the cooperative has led the government to recognize this cooperative as the “top agricultural cooperative in Laos”. This award was received in 2015 and led to numerous publications and training manuals being produced via a detailed study of our methods and the cooperative structure.
- All donations for Lao programs go towards:
– Community owned and operated, organic seedling nursery
– Establishment and construction of a coffee micro-mill
– Clean water wells for 9 villages
– Clean, smokeless, cook-stoves for villages
– Coffee-pulp-to-animal-feed technology for all villages
– Zero-waste, LEISA, village-level, animal raising facilities
– Healthcare access for family units (special focus on child nutrition and optometry)
As an ongoing project, we assist with coffee quality training for the communities. Last year, 19 village chiefs were trained in basic coffee quality assessment. After the top coffee lots were assessed, we sent samples to companies in the United States, Australia, Japan, and Vietnam. A few buyers immediately responded and the community was able to receive a 48-104% premium for their coffee. This was the highest price they’ve ever received for their coffee.
Additionally, we have designed and developed low-cost coffee roasting technology which is now being used by the community to raise funds for their own clean water projects (see: Jhai Coffee House).
This coming year, among other things, we will be introducing clean water technology which costs less than $200 to construct and can provide an entire village (i.e. 10,000L/day) with clean, 99.999% filtered water using something called BioChar.
The community has asked for help in building accessible schools for their children, establish clean water facilities, clear unexploded mines from tribal lands, use clean cookstove technology, establish nutrient-dense subsistence crops, and more.
ABOUT THEIR COFFEE
The coffee of these communities are unique, relatively undiscovered, and rare. The high elevation (1300m+), volcanic soil, and plateau area lends itself to great coffee growing conditions. Most of the coffee grown is Arabusta Catimor. The communities we work with grow the true, specialty quality Arabica Typica, Arabica Typica Java, Arabica Catuai, and Arabica Bourbon. Their coffee carries an intense bouquet of kaffir lime blossom, jasmine, honeysuckle, plumeria, tea rose, and a hint of bergamot aroma. The sweetness is delicate, but refined, reminding us of a well-balanced butter cookie. The body is silky, but light enough to carry the floral aromas well. The acidity is very obvious and lends well to the fact that the citrusy, floral aromas need such a sparkling grape/apple acidity to keep everything together. These communities grow some absolutely world-class and undiscovered specialty coffee which needs to be experienced by any serious coffee connoisseur.