A direct trade coffee project between The Salvation Army and farmers in Vietnam, featuring the story of Vu Pham Hoang, 28, who initiated it all.
Brewing hope Vu Pham Hoang, 28, grew up on a BY coffee farm in Pleiku. CHRISTIN Located in central Vietnam, Pleiku DAVIS was strategically important during the Vietnam War as the main center of defense in the highland region and home to the U.S. Camp Holloway. The farm belonged to Hoang’s grandparents, and his parents worked the land when they weren’t going to school. Hoang’s father went on to become a doctor and his mom a pharmacist; they provided Hoang, their oldest child, with an education from the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City. Soon after graduating, he worked for an agricultural export and import company before landing a well-paying job at the city’s BMW dealership. The coffee farmers, who work from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, were on his mind, however, and in early 2010, Hoang quit his job to return to his hometown village. PAGE 14 CARING SPRING 2011 DOING THE MOST GOOD “My grandparents and all of my family were farmers,” he said. “I am the witness of their daily struggles…I feel for their suffering. Therefore, I have a special love for the farmers. My biggest dream and goal was to return and help the farmers in my hometown.” With The Salvation Army, Hoang is implementing his vision for helping his hometown farmers. Direct trade network Far from Pleiku, in San Francisco, Major Jack Phillips, then area coordinator for the San Francisco Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) and now administrator and area coordinator for the Portland ARC, had an idea for an open coffee bar in the local family store. Customers buy a cup, mostly donated mugs, and fill it with free, fresh brewed coffee—The Second Cup. When visiting the coffee corner in the Geary Family Store, ARC Commander Major Man-Hee Chang A direct trade coffee project between The Salvation Army and farmers in Vietnam considered why The Salvation Army didn’t produce its own coffee for use in centers and programs. Chang said the average ARC uses 150 to 200 pounds of coffee per month. Through a string of connections, Hoang made contact with Chang and submitted a 16-page business plan. It proposed a direct trade between the coffee farmers in Pleiku and the Army’s ARC Command in the West. Following further discussions, Hoang left his job at the BMW dealership to pursue this partnership full time. “My parents strongly objected my intentions because they thought what I was doing is not useful for my own life,” Hoang said. “They also objected because they saw that the connection with the Americans is not beneficial for me.” Because of his dealings with Chang and others involved with the project—all Americans—Hoang is now on a government blacklist that will make it nearly impossible for him to ever get a job again in Vietnam. He is not concerned, however, as he has his own career plan. Hoang developed a network of roughly 50 local farmers who agreed to let him handle the sale of their coffee harvests. Many of these farmers know Hoang and his family, and believe that he is helping to secure a fair profit for them. Bypassing the typical broker, the coffee growers receive a higher price for their beans. In turn, this money supports additional production, which then further Coffee farmers in Hoang’s network: (L-R) Van, Von, Dinh, and Tam DOING THE MOST GOOD SPRING 2011 CARING PAGE 15 increases profit. “The only reason that makes me want to do this job is my love for the farmers,” Hoang said. “I went through [poverty] during my childhood, but I was fortunate to escape it. I want to help so that other families can escape poverty also.” Harvesting income Americans alone drink 400 million cups of coffee per day, making the U.S. the world’s leading consumer of coffee, much of which is produced in developing countries. Vietnam is now second only to Brazil in tons of coffee exported nationally, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service—an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is the largest producer of the Robusta coffee bean, which accounts for roughly one-third of the coffee produced in the world. Driving through Pleiku, it’s clear that most families in the town and the surrounding Gai Li Province have a coffee The Salvation Army in Vietnam The Salvation Army has no current presence in Vietnam, but did engage in social and community development in the country over two periods of time. The Army first worked in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971 providing medical, educational and evangelical services to American troops and local people affected by the war in refugee camps and orphanages in the Saigon area. It withdrew in 1971 when the funding contract with the United States Agency for International Development ended. In 1998, the Army investigated possible reentry into Vietnam. After meetings with government officials and two exploratory visits, The Salvation Army planned to begin full-time work in Vietnam in January 1999, specifically to help complete a furniture factory and provide employment training. Then International Secretary Commissioner Fred Ruth signed a memorandum of agreement between The Salvation Army and Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. The Army agreed to provide poverty alleviation projects, community development, training in primary health care, HIV/AIDS awareness, agriculture and animal husbandry, literacy programs and vocational skills and employment. PAGE 16 CARING SPRING 2011 farm—whether it is acres of land or, commonly, a small patch outside the house. For many, the coffee represents a way to earn a minimal income. One acre of land can grow about 1,500 coffee plants, which live up to 30 years but must initially develop for three years before harvesting. The initial cost for seedling and three years of care is roughly $750 per acre, according to Hoang. Brokers often loan money to the farmers at 5 percent monthly interest (60 percent per year), with a requirement to sell the harvest to the broker at extremely low rates. Annual upkeep for pruning, insecticide, weeding, watering, fertilizer, and labor costs about $1,300 per acre. According to Hoang, the net income for local farmers is $1,350 per acre— barely above the cost of its operation. In partnership with The Salvation Army, the net income for a farmer in Hoang’s network—who is able to sell harvested coffee beans at a fair market price—is $2,120 per acre, representing a 57 percent profit increase. The agreement focused on social and community development as the Vietnamese government forbade evangelizing. The Army could not use its international trust money for projects in Vietnam, because the money must be used toward the advancement of the Christian religion. A second withdrawal In the second stint of the Army in Vietnam, money became an issue. The International Management Council (IMC) at International Headquarters reviewed operations and expressed concern; the board of trustees had not approved the use of international funds and the project’s initial grant was nearly expended. IMC requested a proposal for adequate funding or a plan for withdrawal. The team working in Vietnam thought the decision was unprecedented and the work was sustainable through project administration funds; the board disagreed. At another meeting in December 1999, the board decided it was best to withdraw and wait for religious law in Vietnam to change. Army operations in Vietnam wound down until all projects—providing musical instruments and Braille books for the Hai Phong School for the Blind, medicine and equipment for the Hai Phong hospital, a DOING THE MOST GOOD cow bank in Son Lawere—were complete or handed over to another agency. Then chief of staff, General John Larsson (Ret.), announced the Army’s withdrawal in February 2000. Discussions of new work A controversial ordinance regarding religious freedom in Vietnam passed in November 2004. Discussions arose about resuming Army work in Vietnam if funding was available, but nothing has begun to date. In 2006, the U.S. removed Vietnam from its list of countries it considers to violate religious freedom. The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, reported that Vietnam had unveiled a new liberal policy on religion—allowing Vietnamese, foreign visitors and residents the legal right to practice their faith without hindrance from the state. However, the Human Rights Watch World Report 2011, released in January, reports that the Vietnam government “intensified its repression of activists and dissidents during 2010, and cracked down harshly on freedom of expression, association and assembly.” n From a Salvation Army International Headquarters report. “The [Salvation Army] price is much better than selling to the brokers in Vietnam,” Hoang said. “With this help, the farmers sell for a fair price…and are able to take care of their debts, so it will lessen their burden.” Vu Pham Hoang 10-acre farm On a winding, narrow dirt road outside of Pleiku, Van and Tam—Hoang’s aunt and uncle—live with their two children in a one-bedroom house on a 10-acre coffee farm. They have some 15,000 coffee trees—eight- to 10-foot leafy, green plants that grow red berries on long vines; the grape-sized fruit grows a seed—or coffee bean—inside. Though harvest season runs from November to January, caring for Van and Tam’s farm is a year-round, daily endeavor. When the time for harvesting arrives, it takes about a month to complete. Neighboring farmers work together to harvest crops, roughly an hour per tree, sliding and twisting a gloved hand down each individual vine to strip the ripe red fruit off and onto a tarp below the tree. Once the berries are off the tree and carried to the house, they are laid out on a tarp to dry in the sun for seven to 10 days. The fruit is dry when the bean can be heard rattling inside and is then bagged for sale to a broker; the typical 90-pound bag sells for $16. Before further sale to another broker or roaster, the berries are put through a machine to shell the “flesh” and remove the coffee bean inside. Robusta blend Through Chang and the West’s ARC Command, and following in-person meetings with Hoang and farmers in Pleiku, The Salvation Army purchased its first load—44,000 pounds—of the Vietnamese Robusta coffee beans in November 2009. “The [Salvation Army] price is much better than selling to the brokers in Vietnam,” Hoang said. “With this help, the farmers sell for a fair price…and are able to take care of their debts, so it will lessen their burden.” The Army began experimental roasting with a contracted company in San Francisco, called Jeremiah’s. In this research phase, numerous blends were created before conducting taste tests at ARCs in the West in March 2010. A blend of 75 percent Robusta bean and 25 percent Arabica bean from El Salvador created the right taste—a bold, earthy flavor—with both light and dark roasts available. DOING THE MOST GOOD SPRING 2011 CARING PAGE 17 Children play and read at Pleiku’s Sao Mai Orphanage which has received donations through the coffee project. A design firm tested six names for the coffee among consumers. The official name has not yet been released. Currently, 20 of the 22 Western ARCs serve the coffee to the beneficiaries and staff. Proceeds returned Van and Tam’s farm can produce 10 loads—440,000 pounds—of un-shelled coffee berries per year. Chang’s goal is for the Army to consume 40 percent of the high quality beans and for Hoang to broker the remaining harvest to outside buyers, which will also provide him with an income. The Army’s second load of Robusta coffee beans recently arrived from Vietnam and is being roasted in San Francisco. Eventually the coffee will be available for purchase online. Every Salvation Army unit in the U.S. will receive a sample bag with the hope that they will join in the effort of “brewing hope.” “The market is so big; the potential so great,” Chang said. “This is not fair trade; this is direct trade and the net proceeds go back to Vietnam.” Per pound, the roasted coffee costs the Army roughly $3 and it is selling it for less than $4. The profit, through a contracted brokerage firm that is assisting in the coffee project, is then donated to social projects in Pleiku. PAGE 18 CARING SPRING 2011 DOING THE MOST GOOD To date, the coffee project has assisted the Sao Mai Orphanage, which houses 50 children and is operated by the Catholic Church, with the purchase of new classroom desks and the cost of general operations. “The Army is not profiting on trade but is winning people through our actions,” Chang said. Though The Salvation Army currently has no presence in Vietnam, Hoang expressed interest in becoming a member. “My prayer is that this will lead to an official presence,” Chang said. “Who knows how God will lead us.” Support and sustain This coffee is brewing hope in Pleiku. With each cup that you drink, people are supported and sustained in Vietnam.The coffee directly benefits the farmers, whose earnings uphold the community. The Salvation Army, in a direct trade coffee partnership, is promoting and perpetuating a better future for the farmers and people of Pleiku. Drink good, do good. n Christin Davis is the editor of Caring and managing editor of New Frontier Publications. Photos by Nikole Lim