24 LOCAL ENTERPRISE
MYANMORE InDepth Magazine / September 2015
Myanmar Coffee Finds Its Origins International experts say Myanmar-grown varieties of Arabica coffee are already good - but have potential to get much better. One USAID-funded economic development project, implemented by Winrock International, aims to ensure smallholder growers can also cash in as the coffee sector takes off Tim May tells the story.
Shan State coffee grower tending seedling in local plant nursery
n April, just as Thingyan was starting, an American named Steve Walls climbed aboard a plane leaving Yangon with an unusual item packed in his carry-on. No one questioned him about it until after he arrived at his final destination , Seattle, Washington. Walls took a taxi to a conference centre where growers, roasters and buyers of the world’s most expensive coffees were gathered for their biggest trade event of their year: the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA’s) Annual Exposition. There, over steaming cups of black coffee, partnerships
are formed, deals worth millions are done, and once every decade or so, a new coffee region or country (known in trade parlance as a new origin) is ‘discovered.’ In a side hall at the Expo, Walls – who leads an agriculture value chain project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Myanmar – found a couple of coffee experts referred to him by contacts. Pulling them aside, he extracted his secret package: a bag of unroasted coffee beans harvested from Arabica coffee plants grown in obscurity in the moun-
tains near Mandalay. The beans, an unusual bluish colour, caught the attention of Andrew Hetzel, a trade expert from Hawaii and SCAA’ board member. The bluish tint reminded Hetzel of Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain coffee, which along with Hawaii’s Kona is among the finest in the world. He was intrigued and decided he needed to know more – a lot more – about Myanmar coffee. Since the day Walls unveiled his bag of mysterious blue beans at the Expo, global interest in Myanmar’s potential
as an emergent producer of specialty grade coffee has risen dramatically. Worldwide, trade experts say the market for specialty coffee is growing at a steadily, with demand rising even as supplies dwindle due to increased labour costs, urbanisation and deforestation of farm lands, and damage from unstable weather patterns. That means a “new” origin like Myanmar (even though coffee actually has been grown here for more than a century) is well positioned – if it can develop its sector smartly and inclusively, by focusing on quality and ensuring economic growth