Fair Trade on the Ground: A Visit to Doi Chaang Coffee Farm in Thailand

Kylie Nealis June 8, 2017

Coffee House in Doi Chaang Village in Thailand

Last November, I had an amazing opportunity to visit a Fair Trade farm for the first time in my life. Even though six months has passed since my visit, it feels like it was yesterday because of the lasting impact that the experience had on me. As the National Organizer for Fair Trade Colleges & Universities here at Fair Trade Campaigns, I work with talented and dedicated student advocates across the country to educate their campus community about Fair Trade and increase their institution’s purchasing of Fair Trade products. I always knew that Fair Trade had many positive impacts for farmers and producer communities around the world but was thrilled when I was given an opportunity to witness first-hand the impact of Fair Trade on the ground by visiting Doi Chaang Coffee Farm in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.

The story:

John M. Darch CEO of Doi Chaang Canada, Thai general manager Sandra Bunmusik, John A. Darch CFO Doi Chaang Canada and the late Wicha Promyong, President of Doi Chaang Coffee

Thailand isn’t exactly known around the world for coffee but a surprisingly large amount of coffee is grown in Thailand and, in the case of Doi Chaang Coffee Co., some of the highest quality coffee in the world. Located in Northern Thailand near the borders of neighboring Laos and Myanmar, Doi Chaang Coffee is a unique story of community empowerment, social entrepreneurship and Fair Trade.

The company is built upon a strategic partnership between the coffee farmers in Thailand and business partners in Canada that are responsible for roasting and distributing the coffee in North America and the UK. The partnership began with an alliance between a Canadian businessmen and leaders from Doi Chaang Village, resulting in a unique 50-50 business model where the Canadian partners would buy green coffee beans from the coffee farmers in Thailand, established as “Doi Chaang Original Coffee Co.” at a significant premium to Fair Trade pricing and return 50% of the profits to the producers in Thailand. Over the past decade since this partnership was established, Doi Chaang Coffee Co. has become well-known throughout Canada, available in grocery stores and cafes, as well as in Thailand and South-East Asia with hundreds of retail outlets.

The village:

Coffee Plants in Doi Chaang Village

Doi Chaang village is remote, about an hour drive from the nearest city, Chiang Rai. The majority of Thailand’s Hill Tribes reside in this region, having migrated into the area from other parts of Asia over the past hundred years. The area where Doi Chaang Coffee Farm is located is home to the Akha Hill Tribe. So how did they start growing coffee? In the 1980’s, the Thai government encouraged Hill Tribe communities to start growing coffee in an effort to eradicate rampant opium production in the region. This led to a dramatic increase in coffee production but a lack of knowledge and resources around marketing, roasting and distribution. This is where Doi Chaang farmers’ partnership with their Canadian business partners was particularly important, the farmers were able to grow the highest quality coffee and their business partners in Canada were able to market, roast and distribute the coffee while returning 50% of the profits back to the farmers.

Beyond Fair Trade:

Doi Chaang Coffee Co. refers to their company and the coffee they sell as Beyond Fair Trade®. So what does “Beyond Fair Trade” mean? According to Doi Chaang, it means “offering beyond Fair Trade premium prices and supporting a unique partnership with farmers. It means offering customers a product that is certified USDA Organic and of the highest quality available. By being Beyond Fair Trade®, we can offer our customers an ethically-produced product that is good for the environment, good for the individual and good for the coffee-lover.” 

Left to right: Adel Pisailert, Co-Founder of Doi Chaang Coffee and former Akha village leader, John A. Darch, CEO of Doi Chaang Coffee Co. and myself at Doi Chaang Coffee Farm.

The Beyond Fair Trade® nature of Doi Chaang Coffee Co. was evident in several ways when I visited the farm. First, by offering beyond Fair Trade premium prices, Doi Chaang Coffee Co. has been able to support and facilitate numerous community development and infrastructure improvement projects throughout Doi Chaang Village, with all of the projects being decided upon and executed by the village members and farmers themselves.

A community that just 10 years ago had no electricity and no paved roads, now has electricity throughout the village and a well-maintained road leading up to the village. When I was there, I got to see several other projects funded by Fair Trade premiums including a health clinic open to all members of Doi Chaang village, a community cafeteria for Doi Chaang coffee farmers and production staff, a supermarket where members of the village can buy food and basic provisions, a coffee house open to visitors and locals alike and an Academy of Coffee where members of Doi Chaang and nearby villages can learn the basics of high quality coffee production. Here in the U.S., we often take having quick, easy access to healthcare for granted. In the case of Doi Chaang village, building a health clinic in the village drastically changed the lives of farmers and their families. Instead of having to drive one hour to the nearest hospital, they can now receive basic healthcare close to home and women in the village can even choose to have their babies delivered there.

The healthcare clinic in Doi Chaang Village

Changing the farmer-buyer relationship:

The story of Doi Chaang Coffee Co. is certainly a unique one. After seeing first-hand how their Beyond Fair Trade® model has had a positive impact not only on coffee farmers in Doi Chaang Village but also on members of the wider community, I believe they’ve set a great example for other Fair Trade farms and companies. Fair Trade is about so much more than a fair wage, it is also about empowerment, community and relationship building, something that the coffee farmers in Doi Chaang village and their business partners in Canada have made a central part of their mission. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Doi Chaang Coffee Farm and hope to return again someday.

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Kylie Nealis, National Organizer for Fair Trade Colleges & Universities

Kylie brings over 5 years of community organizing and non-profit experience to Fair Trade USA, previously working with Global Exchange and Sierra Club. At Global Exchange she took on a variety of roles including Community Rights Program Associate, Fair Trade Campaign Coordinator, Fair Trade Store Sales Associate and Interim Director of Operations. For the past two years she worked in the Executive Office at Sierra Club providing support to C-level staff and the Board of Directors. Kylie is knowledgeable and passionate about Fair Trade, climate and energy issues, human rights and social and economic justice. Kylie graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a BA in Community Studies and Politics. She also lived in Thailand for 5 years and is conversational in Thai and learning Spanish. In her free time, Kylie enjoys being outdoors, hiking and traveling.