Coffee Country

By Nyein Nyein 20 June 2015

PYIN OO LWIN, Mandalay Division — Standing outside his home an hour’s drive from the northern town of Pyin Oo Lwin, Ye Myint looks out on a view of rolling hills and imagines a greener, more prosperous future.

“This region could be the coffee capital of Myanmar,” said the fifty-something who is banding together with other farmers in the north to try to take Myanmar’s coffee profile to the next level.

Myanmar has grown coffee since the British introduced Arabica plants to Shan State. Today coffee plants are grown in numerous locations throughout the country, from Kachin State in the north to Mon State in the south, but on a relatively small scale and largely at the lower end of the business.

“It’s a sad reality that we have fine raw materials here, but we’re not producing many high-quality products,” said Ye Myint.

Much of the country’s coffee output consists of lower-grade Robusta beans for instant coffee and export. Better quality Arabica beans grown in Shan State and other locations are mainly sold to traders at the Myanmar-China border and elsewhere for low prices.

In order to try and kick start a new era, Ye Myint and other coffee farmers in Pyin Oo Lwin and Moe Gote in Mandalay Region, and Naung Cho and Ywar Ngan in Shan State, formed the Myanmar Coffee Association (MCA) last year.

Its members want to increase home-grown processing of beans to create higher-grade finished products, including specialty coffees.

They also hope that more coffee associations will spring up throughout the country, including in locations such as Kayin, Kachin and Kayah states, to help boost the industry, raise livelihoods and encourage competition.

This year, however, the MCA is trying out taking joint action among its members to protect prices. In 2014, the price for beans fell to 300 kyat per 0.65 kilogram, which did not cover some farmers’ costs. Some didn’t even bother to collect their harvest. So in 2015 the association members have agreed to set a standard price of 500-700 kyats per 0.65 kilo for their beans.

Moving forward in the emerging sector still involves a lot of trial and error.

Ye Myint was a farming novice when he began growing coffee using organic methods 16 years ago on 200 acres of land near Pyin Oo Lwin.

He has seen a lot of setbacks over the years, from his plants failing to thrive, to fires on the plantation. With some help from the state agricultural arm, he has conducted continuous testing of growing methods and plants.

The fact that the venture has often made losses hasn’t dimmed his passion for the business.

“I just have to keep trying,” he said, while walking amid some of his planted saplings that are tended to by migrant workers who earn between 2,500 and 5,000 kyat a day, depending on their qualifications.

MCA secretary Min Hlaing, who has a 40-acre coffee farm, estimates that the Pyin Oo Lwin area has around 5,000 acres under coffee, including some in tiny 5-acre plots owned by locals who also grow produce like strawberries and flowers.

That’s still far short of the portion envisaged by the former military government when in 2002 it launched a plan to plant around two hundred thousand acres of coffee throughout the country, mainly in highland areas. Large swathes of land were seized or reallocated for the purpose, much of it still unused.

Last year Tin Maung, a union lawmaker from a constituency in Mandalay, said in parliament that about 18,000 acres are under coffee nationwide. Around Pyin Oo Lwin, much land earmarked for coffee remains idle in the hands of former military figures, a local said on condition of anonymity.

Deforestation in the area, including for the production of quick lime, is also taking a toll as the climate becomes hotter and drier.

Coffee growers say their businesses can help the environment, as they plant larger trees to provide shade for the coffee shrubs.

For now, the main challenge is to improve the product and find new markets. Ye Myint is completing a new processing plant for that purpose.

His fellow MCA member Soe Hlaing manages the 100-acre Myanmar Coffee Plantation company, which began its own processing in 2010.

After its products garnered interest at a food trade fair in South Korea, it is increasing yearly production of 13 tons by some 50 percent.

“Japanese and Korean dealers bought our products last year and liked them, so this year we aim to produce 20 tons,” said Soe Hlaing.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.