Yuko Maskay talks to the Ngwe Tun, winner of KBZ Entrepreneurial Achievement Award at Myanmore Awards 2015, about his passion for coffee, and how everybody can benefit by best practice in all stages of its production.
Ngwe Tun is a coffee guy. During trips away from his hometown of Yangon, he would savour the aroma and taste of a fresh, brewed cup of coffee, wishing he could enjoy the same quality back home. He didn’t know anything about coffee farming, but he was an entrepreneur at heart with a background in IT.
He researched extensively on the Internet on how to harvest and roast coffee. Two years ago, he bought 20 acres of land in Ywar Ngan township in the Taunggyi District of Southern Shan State, a one-day drive from Yangon, and started cultivating coffee.
Genius Coffee is Ngwe Tun’s tenacity and hard work come alive. Located in the heart of downtown, not far from Sule Shangri-la Hotel, this small coffee shop is fast receiving recognition for not only its quality, but also its commitment to community and environment.
Capitalising on Shan highland’s high altitude, where its cool temperature and climate are conducive for harvesting coffee, Ngwe Tun takes pride in the quality of his coffee, where the difference is in the aftertaste.
“We only use Arabica coffee, which will be bitter and sour in the beginning, then sweet. The content of coffee is low, but the taste and aroma are very nice,” says Ngwe Tun, claiming that this mild coffee can be enjoyed anytime of the day, even before going to sleep.
He says that meticulous detail goes into making and processing of the coffee. From picking only ripened cherries (coffee seed) so the aftertaste is not sour, to using a purification system to maintain the PH balance of the water. Moisture content needs to be measured periodically to prevent too much moisture, which will create mold, and overdrying will cause the coffee beans to lose taste and flavour. Chemical fertilisers are not used and they handpick all their berries. If any of this process goes awry, there will be a problem in the roasting process.
Last year, his diligence paid off with a passing quality standard grade of 81/100 from the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) that certifies them as a ‘specialty’ coffee, remarkable in a country where most local coffee beans don’t meet international standards at all.
Ngwe Tun admits the biggest challenge is maintaining the standards but he trains the farmers regularly so that they understand the guidelines for quality coffee processing, including personal hygiene and the importance of growing coffee the correct way. His dream is that in two to three years, they will be the first fair-trade certified coffee in Myammar.
“I think it’s not too difficult. We can do it,” he says.
He understands that it’s not only important to train the farmers, but to take care of their personal livelihood by providing for their families. Eighty percent of the people in the region are farmers and are self-sufficient, but Ngwe Tun says that they lack education, healthcare and access to information and technology.
To fix this gap, Genius Coffee gives 10% of the profits to the development of the Danu hill tribe by contributing to their education, healthcare and youth empowerment.
“Our philosophy is that since we are doing business in the area where the Danu hill tribe live, we should contribute income in that area,” says Ngwe Tun.
The process hasn’t come without a challenge. Ngwe Tun started out by hand-roasting coffee in his home, with the help of his wife who does the logos and design.
“We started with a small batch of the coffee with a small roaster from Korea, then got feedback from family and friends. We didn’t have a proper grinder,” he recalls.
With a recent purchase of two grinders from Italy and a local company, they can now roast a bigger batch of very fine-ground coffee.
Along with quality, Ngwe Tun faces another challenge of many coffee shops and cafes popping up in Yangon, He knows that there is fierce competition, but he is not worried, citing that unlike other businesses where coffee is imported, theirs is locally produced and roasted, so they can keep their prices low.
“We are not trying to make big business or be rich. Maybe coffee and labour prices will get higher, but we buy directly from the farmer and profit goes directly to them,” says Ngwe Tun.
More than profit though, Ngwe Tun says that what’s important is that he practices ethical business with concern for the environment. He sees it as a reciprocal process where the coffee needs the shades of the trees to increase its lifespan, and so not cutting down trees helps his business, which in turn helps the environment.
He also uses recycled packaging to sell his coffee beans at the stores, and gives a 10% discount on purchase to customers who bring their own bags to buy their roasted coffee.
Reiterating that transparency is an important part of his business, starting last December, Ngwe Tun introduced a 3-day coffee tour at his plantation allowing guests to visit coffee farms, pick the coffee, and help process them at the factory.
“We decided to start this so that our customers can trust our coffee process and also learn about what it takes to make quality coffee,” he says.
Ngwe Tun hopes that more companies, both local and foreign, will use ethical business practices that empower the community, allowing them to become independent and self-sustainable.
“Life is very short, as you know, and if we were alone and working just for money, that will be very, very lonely and meaningless. If we help other people, there will be something coming in return,” he says.
No.220, 31st Street (street directly behind Sule Shangri-La Hotel), Pabedan Township
Tel: 01373375, 09421068935
Opening Hours: 9.00 AM – 9.00 PM