Laotian culture exudes peace. In such cities as the World Heritage City Luang Prabang, monks in saffron robes knock on doors to collect peace offerings. Dusk and dawn shimmer on the temples’ facades, and the mountains provide a stunning backdrop for the lush greenery that surrounds the city.
Peace, however, has often eluded this landlocked nation of 6.4 million. Laos has the dubious title of most bombed country on the planet, and over a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. For many farmers, opium was the only means for economic opportunity for many years. The French introduced coffee, but farmers and their families still had to eat, so subsistence farming was often the norm. The European Union funded a coffee-growing initiative in the 1990s, but the effort failed for Luang Prabang farmers because there was simply no market. But now a young company could revitalize coffee cultivation in this lush region.
David Dale had worked in Laos for five years on an agricultural project north of Luang Prabang. While he met with farmers, he heard the same frustration over and over again: Laos’s location made it difficult to find buyers for any of their crops. Dale eventually realized that Arabica coffee was the solution. Arabica, which is more delicate than the more globally prominent robusta variety, could displace opium, build wealth, and also have a benign effect on the environment.
Dale developed relationships not only with farmers, but business-savvy local Hmong men who could promote coffee in Luang Prabang’s cafes, hotels, and stores. Their hard work and collaboration has brought impressive results. Dale figured 50 hectares could end up cultivated the first year, but that number spiked to 120 hectares, as more farmers ripped out the opium poppies and turned to coffee trees instead—300,000 coffee trees in total. Saffron Coffee was born.
The results are a winner all the way around. Farmers make triple or quadruple the income they would have received had they grown commodity crops like soy, rice, or corn–all of which led to slash-and-burn-agriculture in the region. The environment improves, and so do the lives of children, whose parents can now afford to send them to school. Currently Saffron is working on obtaining the International Fair Trade Labeling Organization’s blessing; the Fair Trade label should only improve Saffron Coffee’s appeal.
For now the roasted product is only available in Laos, with plans to export green unroasted beans to Europe and the United States.