Smallholder Farmers in Burma Enter International Specialty Coffee Market
When was the last time you spotted coffee from Burma at your local coffee shop or neighborhood store? Chances are you haven’t, but that’s all about to change. This summer, smallholder farmers in Burma officially entered the global specialty coffee market. For the first time in history, coffee growers are shipping high quality, single-origin beans to Taiwan, Switzerland and North America this July.
For these beans, the journey from trees in Southeast Asia to coffee cups in the United States has been a long and difficult one. After more than six decades of military rule, civil war and restrictive trade and economic policies, Burma is finally taking steps to enter the global market after democratic reforms took place in 2010. Trade restrictions have eased, and slowly but surely, Burma’s farmers are beginning to recognize the potential of their land—particularly when it comes to growing world-class coffee. Due to Burma’s mountainous landscape, farmers grow mostly Arabica varieties, which are popular in high-end coffee production.
After a Farmer-2-Farmer volunteer recognized the potential to grow varieties of Arabica coffee in the elevations and conditions of Burma, a project funded by Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, began its work to connect rural farmers to coffee markets.
On August 23, Winrock, USAID and the non-profit Coffee Quality Institute celebrated the arrival of Burma's specialty coffee to the U.S. with a cupping event at La Colombe café in Washington, D.C. La Colombe Coffee Roasters is one of the early international buyers of Burma's coffee. Speaking at the event, both Former Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell as well as Winrock International's President and CEO Rodney Ferguson highlighted the power of agriculture market linkages in making real improvements within Burma, where 70 percent of the population earns its income through agriculture.
Photo: Greg Rapaport/USAID. La Colombe Cafe in Washington, DC hosts a launch for Burmese coffee.
About 6,000 farmers participated in the project to integrate new growing practices that would produce consistently high-quality coffee. Although drinking tea is a more popular cultural practice than drinking coffee, Burma’s coffee growers were quick to pick up on the improved growing and roasting techniques recommended by the project. The project’s chief of party, Stephen Walls of Winrock International, commented during the launch on the relatively short time it took for farmers to innovate their growing and roasting techniques, allowing them to present a product which could be sold internationally in just two years' time, an amazing feat to pull off in the specialty coffee market. La Colombe’s lead roaster Chris Miller, who was present to celebrate the launch also told Winrock he was immensely impressed with the quality and taste of the coffee since he tested it at a cupping organized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). “The coffees were delicious with clarity, balance, acidity and fruit flavors that were surprising for a first offering. I immediately knew that this was something that La Colombe could get behind,” said Miller.
Burma's community-based producers are choosing to partner with international coffee buyers that want to build direct-trade relationships, as they understand these export relationships to be key in the promotion of sustained economic growth in rural farming communities. For many smallholder coffee farmers, the specialty coffee market offers opportunities that can increase incomes and livelihoods and pave a path out of poverty. Many smallholders are eager to improve their productivity and the quality of their beans, and investors are equally excited to introduce more of this unique coffee to the market. Most importantly, new opportunities to export to international markets have the ability to transform Burma’s economic landscape after decades of economic isolation.
Alma Aliaj of USAID contributed to the reporting of this entry.