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Friday, 29 March, 2002, 15:31 GMT
Laos' fresh coffee hopes
Women in a Paksong coffee warehouse sift beans by hand
Little has changed since coffee was first planted
test hello test
By Simon Ingram
in Paksong, Laos

In the gloom of a cramped, thatched-roof hut in southern Laos, coffee roaster Khamla Phongsouta prepares his antiquated equipment for another day's business.

It does not take long. Mr Khamla's machine is nothing more than a battered steel drum linked to a small motor which rotates it over an open charcoal fire.

The only way he can tell when the roasting is done is by sniffing the vapours the beans give off.

Coffee roaster Khamla Phongsouta prepares his antiquated equipment
The industry needs new money and equipment
"This is the best roasting plant in Paksong," says Mr Khamla proudly, as he pours a sack of green Robusta beans into the drum.

"We supply many local cafes and restaurants."

Even so, with a maximum output of just 500 kilograms a week, he says he is not earning enough to justify investing in more up-to-date equipment.

The coffee roaster's predicament is typical of an industry which - despite a rich potential - has languished for years in one of the world's least-developed economies.

The French introduced the coffee plant to Laos' fertile Bolovens Plateau in the 1920s. The former colonial administrators rightly suspected that the plateau's altitude and rich soil would be perfect for the crop.

The dusty town of Paksong remains Laos' "coffee capital". During the harvest season it is usual to see coffee beans laid out in the road to dry while carts laden with sacks of freshly-picked coffee trundle by.

For generations, Nomala Thepboualy's family have kept several acres of coffee beans near the small village of Phou Ouy.

Cart laden with coffee beans rolls past coffee beans drying in a Paksong street
On the roads, coffee has right of way
"When the French were here our coffee was very popular," says Mr Nomala. "It's sad that today it's so little known around the world."

Since the French left, the coffee farmers have sold their crop to middlemen who shipped it off to the former Soviet Union or another of Laos' communist allies for use in barter trade.

Coffee remains Laos' biggest agricultural export, but it earns the country only about $20m a year in foreign currency earnings.

But things could be about to change.

Fresh thinking

Mr Nomala and about 100 other small coffee growers have joined forces with an American entrepreneur, Lee Thorn, who is determined to find a niche for Laotian coffee in the United States.

The farmers are being trained to produce a high-grade, organic coffee for export.

Highly productive but low-quality Robusta bushes are being replaced by high-grade Arabica-typical plants. By co-operating closely with the farmers to implement this and other changes to cultivation techniques, Mr Thorn says Laotian coffee can reach the standards necessary to get the recognition it deserves.

"We have (direct) relationships with the growers, and therefore we can control the quality of the coffee," says Mr Thorn.

"And with high quality we can sell this as specialty instead of commodity coffee, and as specialty coffee we can get a higher price for it".

The project is not run on standard commercial principles. Mr Thorn's San Francisco-based Jhai Foundation pays the farmers what are known as "fair trade prices" - roughly five times what the farmers used to earn when they sold their crop to local traders.

"In addition, we're going to set up the marketing company in Laos, and part of the profits will go towards Jhai projects aimed at developing the local economy," Mr Thorn says.

We have to upgrade the quality of our coffee... If we achieve that, then we believe Lao coffee can penetrate markets around the world

Head of the national exporters association

The coffee project has set itself modest targets initially. Jhai will import just 1.7 tonnes of Laotian coffee this year, for sale in upmarket restaurants and over the internet.

But matching even these limited ambitions is a challenge.

Experts say Laotian coffee possesses unusual qualities of flavour and consistency. But to make an impact in a world dominated by top produce from such coffee giants as Brazil and Colombia is a formidable challenge.

"We have to upgrade the quality of our coffee, everything from the picking of the beans to the last phase of production, so as to meet the standards required abroad," says the head of the national exporters association, Boonlap Nhouyvanisvong.

"If we achieve that, then we believe Lao coffee can penetrate markets around the world".

There are other problems too. An earlier trial shipment of Laotian coffee ran into difficulties during trans-shipment through neighbouring Thailand. Not to mention the current depressed state of world coffee markets, where prices have languished for years.

A big test comes in April, when a trial consignment goes on sale in America. A successful launch will give the forgotten coffee-men of Paksong something at last to celebrate.

See also:

20 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
One man's mission to Laos
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Laos: Caught between its neighbours
23 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Mekong: 'Mother of rivers'
21 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Laos' crippled economy
12 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pledge to treble Laos incomes
02 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Laos marks 25 years of Communism
05 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Laos: 'Most-heavily bombed place'
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