In a country where a sachet of instant coffee costs just 50 kyats, how can you convince consumers to savor a cup of premium coffee for upwards of 2000 kyats? This is just one of the many hurdles that Myanmar’s coffee industry needs to overcome in order to develop in to a more profitable model. It is a seemingly impossible task but a group of passionate java lovers from the private and public sectors have joined together to help tackle these challenges.
Since 2014, the Value Chains for Rural Development (a USAID funded project) and WinRock International have been working with partners in Myanmar’s coffee industry to change the commonly held belief that coffee is a cheap commodity and instead get consumers and growers to view it as a premium product. The 5-year project includes training of farmers and processors, educating the domestic hospitality, restaurant and catering sector (HORECA) on coffee appreciation techniques and providing marketing support and supply chain links to develop export channels. Through these paths they hope to reach their ultimate goal of having 9,000 Shan State residents benefit directly from the coffee industry.
But first the perception must change. There is a reason why coffee is so cheap in Myanmar. Coffee is a highly labor-intensive crop: beans do not ripen at the same time so they must be carefully checked daily and hand-picked when ready. This, in turn, raises the overall labor cost of growing coffee and thus the selling rate. Instead of investing the time to hand pick perfectly ripe beans, Myanmar coffee growers let the beans over-ripen, fall to the ground and then collect them all at one time. The result is a low-quality product with a higher yield and less cost that can thus be sold as a cheap commodity. Yet even as a commodity it is still a low-profit crop in Myanmar and many farmers have chosen to stop planting coffee and switch to more lucrative items.
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the WinRock project is U Thu Zaw, the owner of Sithar coffee and founder of the Mandalay Coffee Group. U Thu Zaw’s family became involved in the business 20 years ago when they opened Fuji, Yangon’s first real coffee shop. Although the shop was a success, they grew frustrated with the hassle of importing high-quality beans and so, in 2004, the opened an Arabica coffee plantation in Pyin Oo Lwin and began domestic distribution. These days Sithar supplies more than 1,000 outlets in 41 Myanmar cities with premium-grade coffee. But U Thu Zaw sees this as just the tip of the iceberg for Myanmar’s coffee production and he is determined to do more.
In mid-August, U Thu Zaw arranged, with the support of WinRock, a week-long training course for potential partners from the HORECA sector. Two international coffee experts taught ‘cupping’, the method used by judges to rate the quality of beans and brewed coffee. They also educated the attendees on proper brewing techniques and used a range of apparatuses to demonstrate these techniques. Participants were enthusiastically asking questions and eager to taste the specialty coffees on offer.
U Thu Zaw was pleasantly surprised at the event’s turn-out and hopes the interest in specialty coffee will spread. He believes that ‘Myanmar has the potential to be a leader in premium-grade coffee production but firstly we need farmers, buyers and consumers to understand the real taste of quality coffee. Although coffee has been grown here since 1885, we produce less than 6000 tons a year whereas Vietnam produces over 1.4 million tons. Therefore we are trying to bring stakeholders together to work systematically on improving the consistency of Myanmar coffee and developing connections with international partners for export.’
There are signs of improvement. Since the start of the WinRock project, three Myanmar coffees have received a rating above 80 from the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). Anything rated above 80 is considered ‘specialty’ coffee and these beans are now being exported to the US and Europe. The project organizers have also seen an increased interest from local farmers in coffee production and training.
Daw Su Su Hlaing is one participant from Ywar Ngan. Prior to the WinRock project she was a wholesale broker, buying green (unripe) coffee beans from the 5 day Shan markets. She would sell the beans to large processing plants to make instant coffee but, with fluctuating prices and a lack of knowledge about her product, Su Su Hlaing was never successful in turning a consistent profit. Through the WinRock project, she has learned the technical side of growing, processing and marketing specialty coffee and has thus become a more successful and trusted broker. She is proud to be a part of the project because now small farmers are getting a fair price for their crops and Myanmar is gaining recognition around the world for its beans.
When asked if she still drinks 3-in-1 sachets, Daw Su Su Hlaing’s eyes lit up and she said proudly ‘No, I have developed a taste for good quality coffee so when I am at home I brew my own filter coffee.’ After a moment’s pause she added, with a cheeky grin, ‘But I still add a spoonful or two of sugar.’
This type of comment did not seem to bother U Thu Zaw nor the other organizers. They understand the acceptance of high-quality coffee will be a long process but they are seeing signs of change. U Thu Zaw pointed to the recent success of cafes such as Bar Boon and Gloria Jean’s as examples of the increasing demand for good coffee at a higher price point. Both cafés use locally grown and processed beans and are popular with locals as well as tourists and ex-pats.
Of course no one wants hipster, international cafes to take over Myanmar’s local tea shops. But it would be great to see Myanmar-grown coffee find its way in to more restaurants and hotels both here and abroad. Given the determination of the participants in the WinRock program, there is little doubt this will be achieved.
For more information about the project please visit http://www.winrock.org/country/burma/ and for more information about local coffees check out http://www.sitharcoffee.com/