The 5th wave of coffee

Lee Ayu Chuepa is the Thai co-founder of Akha Ama Coffee and proprietor of the Akha Ama Cafés in Chiang Mai. Born to the Akha hilltribe, Lee was working with an NGO in Chiang Mai when he decided to turn his village's then unprofitable coffee plantations into a world class product. Converting to organics and refining quality control, within a year, Akha Ama coffee was selected for the World Cup Coffee Tasters. Lee was awarded the Thailand Smart Farmer Award in 2016. Guru spoke to him at last month's {Re} Food Forum.

Why does coffee evoke such emotions for you?

Coffee is something I never thought I would choose to do in my life, even though I grew up surrounded by it. It became a tool for me to engage with my community so I could enhance their quality of life. It is not about the Arabica, but my family are coffee farmers and so I thought it could be one of the dynamic products that could change their lives. The reason I chose coffee was also because I thought it could be a good revenue generator.

How did Akha Ama coffee start?

I started thinking of how we could combine social impacts with the income that everyone needed to be generated and how we needed to provide the infrastructure the community needed to lead better lives, like opportunities for an education. The community also needed to feel that they could be their own change, not waiting for someone else to do something for them. My dream growing up was this -- to maintain the social aspect but also to maintain the opportunity for the elderly and for the younger generation to get better job opportunities. I want to see the younger generations coming back to their roots. This is the challenge. How does one make them see that what we have is a privilege? By providing a better platform for them to access whatever capacity and ability they have in the community. My own way to achieve this to make sure that someone like me, a university graduate, can live in the mountains and doesn't need to be enticed by city life. So I treat myself as a case study.

Describe your sustainable approach to growing coffee. Why did you go down this path?

I thought we could be the small hands that begin change. I saw this as a chance to enhance our farming practices. I started introducing small changes like growing tea in-between the coffee harvest as tea grows all-year-round, to supplement incomes. Then we started growing stone fruits, as well because of our cool climate. This has also created plenty of jobs around. But coming back to being sustainable, by creating an ecosystem around us, we have managed to create a sustainable environment, too. The diversity of the ecosystem helps protect each crop. I wouldn't say our coffee is organic though we grow it without using pesticides. There are farmers who use chemicals but in minimal amounts. We are in the process of decreasing our pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

Why did you choose to adopt the Portland Stumptown model?

I wanted to highlight the direct trade, which is very meaningful to me. You can claim to be free trade, organic or other such things, but direct trade is not about being accepted in the market. You are working with the farmers and you are not eliminating anyone. This is the business model, talking to the consumers, talking to the farmers, making sure both wants and needs are met, and I soon found that Stumptown had a similar model. They don't have farms, of course, but they fly all over the world, looking for the right coffee. They interact with the farmers, find out how the coffee is grown before roasting it back in Portland and then distributing it to their customers. I already know how to farm coffee and thought that if I could learn now to market and sell our produce, it would help tremendously. It was by sheer luck that I met chef Andy Ricker in Thailand, who told me that my coffee was good but I needed to perfect the roasting. He was a good friend of the owners of Stumptown and was amazed I had heard of them. He set up a meeting and I flew to Portland to learn all about roasting coffee and the retail side of it. I spent a month learning. When I came back I expanded my wholesale and retail businesses and in the first year itself we saw tremendous improvement.

How has the coffee business changed you and your village?

The first thing was that a boy, like me, from an indigenous community with just 39 families could explore a bigger world. It has challenged me to go beyond than what I expected. At this point, the sky is the limit for me. For the community, it has helped them gain self-assurance to know that someone is beside them to guide them. Most young people from the village are now not only fighting for an education but they are fighting to come back home. That, in itself, is amazing. Especially in a community where the quality of education was at a one-time low. Now most of them are bilingual if not tri-lingual. They study Thai, English, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin. They are now connected to the world. They have realised a world where there are no borders and they don't only have to speak with Akha or Thai people. They have become global citizens.

What were the challengers and tribulations getting to where you are now?

My knowledge and skills. As I say sometimes when you are too busy with life, you forget to take time to learn. I feel like I needed more knowledge and that was a challenge for me -- trying to make it better each day. However, it is still not enough. The people I work with are mostly from farming communities and to establish the environment where they can be entrepreneurs, helpers or second generation farmers, is something I have to fight for. I want them to see their own capacity, their own ability without changing them. It is also difficult keeping the farmers focused. Sometimes they are more interested in doing things the easy way and not focusing on quality. The market is another challenge but it is not a priority for me, at the moment.

You have two cafés in Chiang Mai, why haven't you expanded to Bangkok?

Opening a café in Bangkok is in the works but I also have to consider the capacity of the coffee, in terms of volume. We want to build our business but we also need to build entrepreneurs who can look after the business. Though we train our team, getting good staff is a problem. We have two cafés in Chiang Mai but for those outside the city, Akha Ama coffee can be bought online.