Akha Ama – Fair Trade Tourism Meets Coffee Culture

What is ‘fair trade’ and why should we care?

If you love coffee, then it’s worth understanding the impact this popular drink has on the (often indigenous) folks who grow it. With it’s ever-increasing popularity in the western and the eastern worlds, trade in these beloved beans ranges from ethical & healthy to utterly appalling – for both people and the planet.

During a recent weekend visit down into the city of Chiang Mai, I had a specific plan in mind. I was on a mission to accomplish two important (well … important to me, anyway :D) “foodie”- related tasks before beginning a program of detoxification, fasting, and a subsequent ‘clean diet’ program:

  1. Find and eat all of my very fave Thai food before beginning the detox
  2. Uncover as many health-focused restaurants and yummy venues as possible, so that when my detox is complete, I can actually eat something in town.

My efforts paid off in spades, with quite a few excellent choices in the vegetarian and health-oriented restaurants (to be shared in a future post), along with a superb surprise … Akha Ama: a trendy little cafe with an award-winning Barrista and fair-trade cuppas for sale.

Alley-Way Acclaim

Are you a map-lover? If you are, then Nancy Chandler’s delightful maps are reason enough to visit Chiang Mai & Bangkok! These colorful ground plans can set you on a course of discovery to unlikely gems and back-alley wonders. Such was the case for me with Akha Ama.

Little did I know that the Barrista, Jenny, had recently won first place for espresso wizardry in a Northern Thailand competition; or that media of all kinds were now showing up daily to interview her!

Nope: I just saw ‘fair trade coffee’ marked on my map, and my morning coffee ritual locale was decided.

Tucked beneath a bounty of foliage at the far end of a small soi (little side street) off another soi, off a mid-sized lane, Akha Ama Cafe could easily be missed. In fact, my biggest surprise was that so many people have found it at all, since its opening almost 3 years ago. But found it they have. Today, the shop serves a handful of pastries and truly superb coffees to Thais and foreigners alike. In fact, since Jenny’s fame, both minivans and busloads of folks roll up the tiny lane regularly as part of various package tours.

And all of this, thanks to one very savvy young co-owner and the investment of his mom.

Coffee Culture comes to Thailand

Thailand wasn’t always a ‘coffee culture’. When I first arrived in the Kingdom to live, back in 2003, finding anything but Nescafe was a feat of time, tenacity and expense I mostly couldn’t afforded. In fact, outside of Bangkok, a quality espresso drink was a rare indulgence: secreted away in the hallowed halls of western-run hotels and restaurants.

Before leaving for this year’s trip ‘up north’ I mused with Doug over my unwelcomed but likely encounter with nasty, “3-in-one” packets (groung coffee, aluminum milk and a spectrum of processed sugars). Or the equally dreadful Nescafe.

Now maybe it’s just Northern Thailand, with its cool, bean-growing climate. Or maybe its just time & the influence of the western palate, but there’s been nary an instant coffee encounter since my arrival – yay! Coffee and coffee culture appear to now be a definitive part of Thai culture … and I for one, am not complaining!

There are little cafes everywhere. I mean seriously: you can go to the local mechanic’s for an oil or tire change, but you won’t find some tired old Mr. Coffee self-serve with styrofoam cups and  2-day old bitter brew. Instead, you’re much more likely to find a trendy little room with some soft jazz or Thai pop playing, and sweet Thai girl ready to wrangle you some java like an Italian pro.

Mr. Lee Ayu’s Give-Back

The trend can’t be credited to one influencer, but Akha Ama and it’s likely followers (when something’s ‘hot’ in Thailand, every other guy & his brother will follow suit for awhile), are very much thanks to one young & savvy Akha man. Lee Ayu may appear youthful and unassuming, but don’t let his humble demeanor fool you. By the looks of him, you’d never know that Lee may have started a kind of revolution in thinking among hill folk … at least in his own village, and the 14 families who now comprise Akha Ama growers.

With some strategy & elbow-grease, he’s managed to outwit erstwhile predatory bean buyers at their own game. How? By guiding his kinfolk, already 15+ years in the bean-growing biz, into bean processing.

The Ethical Path to the Business of Beans

The Akha are an indigenous ‘hill tribe’ people living in small, high altitude villages in the mountains of Burma, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. They’re an ethnic minority in all of these nations, so you can probably guess what that means: marginalization, poverty and discrimination.

After studying English at University – the only person in his village to have ever enjoyed such a privilege – Lee knew he had to ‘give back’. During post-graduation work with the NGO Child’s Dream, he learned about community development and came to understand how his people were constantly at the mercy of both the weather and middle men. This is because coffee beans have a narrow window of time between harvest and processing before they go bad. That narrow window gives 3rd-party processors leverage for low-balling local growers out of their hard-earned harvests.

But once the village growers followed Lee’s advice and invested in learning how to process their own beans, they could afford to wait for a better bid. The results? Higher quality coffee for the end consumer, and a higher quality life for the growers.

World Cup Championship

Akha Ama Coffee is now found in a variety of locations, although Lee has only one cafe outlet of his own. The beans have been selected by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe’s (SCAE) for the World Cup Tasters Championship in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And if I’m any amateur judge myself, this is one superb cup of joe, at the ridiculously fair price of 45 Thai Baht a cup (that’s about $1.52 USD).

What’s next for Akha Ama? Well, hopefully you 😀 … But as a ‘socially operated enterprise’, there’s plenty of hope that business will continue to grow, although Lee is keeping a handle on assuring a slow and steady pace of growth.

Learn More

To learn more about Akha Ama and sustainable coffee growing, you can visit their website: AkhaAma.com

To Visit, head to: Akha Ama Coffee 9/1 Mata Apartment, Soi 3, Hussadhisewee Road, Chiang Mai. Tel.: 66-86-915-8600




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