Myanmar And Specialty Coffee: Critical Crossroads

When I received an invitation from Winrock International to volunteer in USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Myanmar’s nascent specialty coffee sector, I had only one question: “Myanmar and Specialty Coffee?” The two concepts just didn’t seem to fit together. I looked at the nicely framed SCAA “Coffees of the World” map in my office and Myanmar (or Burma) was not even identified as a coffee producing country – Arabica or Robusta. I did a quick Internet search and found very few references to coffee in Myanmar. So, I accepted Winrock’s invitation immediately.

I knew that Myanmar had gained independence from Great Britain in 1948 and had been under military rule from 1962 until 2010. Just recently the country has started to open up to the world and to more global trade. President Obama was in Myanmar just over a year ago to encourage leaders to continue on their paths toward democracy and participation in the global community. The country is still recovering from Cyclone Nargis, that took more than 130,000 lives in 2008. Today it remains one of the planet’s least developed nations by many measures. Yet, things are changing.

I arrived in Yangon in mid-November, and I was met at the airport by Dr. Ai Thanda Kyaw, a Country Director for Winrock International who traveled with me my entire stay, and patiently translated all of my interactions with farmers and others. As the first volunteer to work in Myanmar’s coffee sector, I had been asked to provide some training on how coffee is farmed, processed, roasted, evaluated, and marketed in more mature coffee origins around the world, and to ultimately recommend how the entire sector could be strengthened to help the country take advantage of this high-value agricultural product. In short, my role was to explore, to listen, to train, and to make recommendations for the future development of Myanmar’s coffee sector.

Before leaving Yangon, we met with USAID and with the 3,000-member Myanmar Fruit, Flower, and Vegetable Producer and Exporter Association (MFVP) that was a host organization for my trip. The MFVP supports its members with a variety of services including exportation.

Our first stop was the Shwe Pu Zun coffee estate in Yet Sauk, located in Shan State near the center of the country. Shwe Pu Zun is a large vertically integrated business that has 1,000 employees who work on coffee farms in Yet Sauk and Pyin Oo Lwin, or at a 200-head dairy farm, a bakery operation, a café and retail bakery, all in Yangon.

Shortly after our arrival, we met to discuss our agenda over lunch, which like all meals during the two weeks, always included rice at the center of the plate, with a variety of smaller dishes to sample and mix with the rice. These dishes were primarily vegetables, dark leafy greens, beans, baby bees, and deep-fried small fish, with many dishes having some “heat.” All meals were accompanied by a soup broth, green tea, and finally coffee.

Eighty percent of the farm’s 300 acres is planted in catimor, growing organically under a shade canopy of carefully planted silver oak, mango, rubber, and macadamia trees. The farm also has test plots of SL 34, #795, and yellow caturra, and expects to have over 1,000 acres in coffee production by 2018.

The Shwe Pu Zun farm in Yet Sauk (altitude: 3,000-3,300 ft.) is one of the best models of sustainability and diversification I have seen anywhere in my coffee travels. The entire farm is powered by its hydro-electric generator, which also has an ingenious system to pump water uphill to provide drip irrigation for coffee, macadamia nut, and mango production. It captures and uses methane from a bio-digester; has its own large organic compost facility that uses rice husks, molasses, and other local ingredients to produce a very clean “black gold;” it treats water from milling, and sun dries its coffee on screened beds that are neatly placed on the well-marked cement patio.

After I spent a full day training the staff of Shwe Pu Zun, we drove over four hours to Ywar Ngan Township (altitude: 4,300-4,500 ft.) where we worked with 60 unorganized, small-scale farmers, some of whom had traveled over 20 miles to attend the training and discussion. Here, the coffee is shade grown organic catuai that is gradually replacing older varieties. The well-diversified farmers have no outlet for their coffee other than Chinese traders who offer one price, regardless of quality. This “take it or leave it” approach leaves farmers little or no incentive to improve quality and no opportunity to negotiate the price. During my time with the farmers, I encouraged them to organize themselves so that they could negotiate together, enjoy economies of scale, share technical information, and join the proposed Myanmar Coffee Farmers and Exporters Association.

Our final stop was the Shwe Pu Zun farm in Pyin Oo Lwin (altitude: 3,500-3,800 ft.), which was a near replica of the farm in Yet Sauk in terms of varieties, sustainable farm practices, and overall excellent farm management. Nearby, we visited the impressive Coffee Research, Information, Extension & Training Centre in Pyin Oo Lwin that, with proper resources, could be the hub of coffee technical assistance in Myanmar.

Once I returned to Yangon I had meetings with the Managing Director of Shwe Pu Zun operations, with USAID, with farm managers, and the leadership of the Myanmar Fruit, Flower, and Vegetable Producer and Exporter Association (MFVP). I shared my view that there are three critical needs to be met to further develop the coffee sector in Myanmar:

1) Organizational development at the community level (i.e., the development of small farmer associations or cooperatives)

2) Organizational development of the sector at the national level (I proposed the establishment of a Myanmar Coffee Farmers and Exporters Association – MCFEA)

3) Better resourced technical assistance and farm extension services.

When I presented the concept, the Myanmar Coffee Farmers and Exporters Association each endorsed this concept. Better yet, the MFVP said that they would welcome and provide it with needed incubator space and guidance.

Much like Myanmar, the coffee sector needs support as it opens up. Being out of global circulation for decades has its drawbacks; however, it also presents significant opportunities, perhaps the largest being to learn from others’ mistakes. The work I started needs follow-up, and Winrock International is committed to continuing its support of Myanmar’s coffee sector by providing additional volunteers to create a thriving industry.

I believe that the “secret” of Myanmar’s specialty coffee will soon emerge, first perhaps as a boutique offering, and before long as a more mainstream coffee origin. The potential for a consistent supply of high quality, sustainably produced coffee from Myanmar will be realized; it is just a matter of time. Best of all, it is grown by some of the kindest, most gentle people anywhere.

Rick Peyser is Director of Social Advocacy and Supply Chain Community Outreach for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters where he has worked for over 24 years. He is a past President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world’s largest coffee trade association, and served six years on the Board of Directors of the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) which sets the standards for Fair Trade that benefit over 1,500,000 small-scale farmers around the world. Currently Rick serves on the Coffee Kids Board of Directors, the Food For Farmers Board of Directors, and the Board of Directors of Fundacion Ixil which is working to improve the quality of life in Ixil coffee communities in El Quiche, Guatemala.

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