Mountain brew

For John Darch, Doi Chaang Coffee is about helping hill tribes

The English may be known for their love of tea, but John Darch is all about coffee. Darch has been throughout Thailand since the mid 1980s as the chairman of Asia Pacific Clean Energy Corp and an active member in the search for potash deposits and development. His most recent venture as chairman of Doi Chaang Coffee has him up in the mountains of Doi Chang in Chiang Rai province to fill his cup.

"Despite doing business in Thailand for over 20 years, I knew little of the hill tribes in northern Thailand," Darch said.

"A friend of mine introduced me to a unique individual named Khun Wicha Promyong, who spoke to me about a small hill tribe farming community settled in the mountains of Chiang Rai. He told me about the indigenous Akha hill tribe of Doi Chang village who were pulling themselves out of poverty and isolation with their own small coffee enterprise."

The encounter began an exciting new path for the Akha tribe and especially for Darch.

Darch wasn't always a coffee connoisseur. He grew up in southern England where he learned determination, commitment, and how to run a business from his parents who owned a bicycle shop. Those attributes led him quickly up the commercial banking ladder and across the ocean to work at the Royal Bank of Canada in Vancouver. After 12 years, Darch partnered with an engineer to create the Crew Group of Companies to explore and develop mining operations worldwide. It was a trip with Crew Group that brought him to Thailand in 1986 to investigate the possibilities of mining potash, the potassium salts mostly used for fertilisers.

"We worked on this venture for over 20 years and like most Western entrepreneurs, I was captivated by Thailand's natural beauty, rich culture, and friendly people," Darch said. "Over the years it has become a second home to me."

When Darch had the fateful conversation with Wicha, now president of Doi Chaang Coffee Original Company, he felt he needed to learn more about his second home.

"I was completely unaware that the vast majority of hill tribes stayed hidden deep in the mountains squatting in extremely impoverished villages with no running water or electricity," he said.

The largest of the six hill tribes, the Akha people live in small villages high up in the mountains. They are originally from China, but over centuries have moved throughout Southeast Asia. It is estimated there are up to 80,000 Akha people living in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Although many of the tribes in the northern provinces have long been settled, most are not considered citizens and instead are registered as aliens.

"[They] do not have state ID, which is needed to gain employment and access to adequate health care and education," Darch said.

He explained the Akha tribe in Doi Chang village had resorted to cultivating opium for survival using a "slash and burn" technique, resulting in deforestation. But in 1983 as part of a royal initiative to bring sustainable agriculture to the hill tribe villages, Doi Chang village received arabica coffee plants to cultivate.

"Whether it was by divine intervention or pure luck, the Akha had unknowingly settled the village in an ideal location for coffee cultivation," Darch said. "Approximately 8,000 acres [3,240 hectares] of their village is covered with rich fertile soil and this combined with the high altitude, perfect climate, fresh flowing spring water and shade from fruit and nut trees makes Doi Chang village a hidden gem."

Despite the perfect conditions for growing coffee, the Akha did not have the proper conditions to sell. Without ID, being unable to speak Thai, and isolated in the mountains, the village was easily exploited by coffee dealers. For 20 years, despite selling quality beans, the village remained impoverished.

"In 2003 the farming families came together to create their own coffee cooperative," explained Darch. "The Akha wanted to take their coffee into the international market in order to increase sales, and it was Wicha's hope that I could help identify new revenue streams outside of Thailand.

"I had every intention of politely declining their request until I visited the village and met with the Akha people. I couldn't help but be impressed with what they had accomplished."

During his visit, Darch saw the families had built processing plants and drying and storage facilities. They were roasting, packaging, and marketing the coffee already. He came up with a business model that would eliminate the growers' financial risks and put more money into their community. He started the Vancouver-based Doi Chaang Coffee Company to partner with the village.

"The Akha retain total ownership of their cooperative in Thailand and the Vancouver affiliate company pays well above fair trade prices for the growers' beans," he explained. "In addition, the farmers were 'gifted' a 50% carried interest in the Canadian company."

This gave the farmers a 50% share on profits from the Canadian company.

After this, Doi Chaang Coffee gained a foothold on the international scene and made a name for itself and the certified organic arabica beans, worldwide. This has in turn changed Doi Chang village and life for its 8,000 residents.

The villagers established the Doi Chaang Coffee Academy, teaching farmers from surrounding villages and hill tribes how to cultivate coffee and the importance of environmental and economic sustainability. The village and its Vancouver partner started the Doi Chaang Coffee Foundation, which aspires to create a better life for all hill tribes. For Darch, Doi Chaang Coffee is about a lot more than what goes in the cup.

"I have experienced the true meaning of the word 'community' and what can be accomplished when people come together," he said.

"Working with the Akha I have learned that it is possible to develop and expand a business without either depleting the natural resources or exploiting the worker. To provide more to the farmer to move beyond survival allows him, his family and community to grow in health and wealth _ to have the resources to make valued choices and plan for the future."

The company has won international awards including one for innovation and business practices at the 2012 World Business and Development Awards, Company of the Year at the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. The product has been featured in food and beverage magazines around the world and is even sold in London's Harrods and Dean & DeLuca in the US.

"The true drive behind the success of this product and company are the Akha growers," said Darch. "The individuals who are doing the most important and hardest part of the job must have a decent standard of living with access to education and health care as well as the right to economically benefit from the sustainability and growth of their commodity."

Although Darch still calls Vancouver home, it's likely you will see him sipping a fresh cup of Doi Chaang coffee right near where it's grown.

"When I am not here I am a bit homesick," he said.

About the author

Writer: Kelly Malone