Most people who drink coffee don’t understand the struggle that many coffee farmers face. Here in Myanmar, there are too many stories of exploitation, tragedy, and waste. But I want to tell you a story of hope and triumph.
I work as the Project Manager for Cherubim Company, the local representative for Lighthouse Coffee in Myanmar. Recently, I was visiting local farmers on coffee mountain, and I stopped by the farm of Ko Maung, a skilled coffee farmer who has been selling his beans to Cherubim for three years.
As we talked, I asked Ko Maung what it was like before Cherubim. His face grew sad, and he said, “For many years, we worked hard to harvest our coffee, but we struggled to find a buyer. Those were difficult years. I still remember tons of coffee rotting in the bags.”
Then he told me that, one day, an agent from a big coffee company came to visit them and made an offer to purchase their beans. “All the farmers were thrilled!” he said. “With no other means to provide for our families, we were desperate to sell our coffee.”
The farmers spent months labouring over the picking, drying and hulling process. When the harvest was ready, the agent came and picked up ten tons of coffee.
“He left with a wave and said the check would in the mail,” Ko Maung said.
The check never came. The payment never arrived. The farmers phoned the agent and wrote to the company, but they were ignored, and never compensated for their crop.
“We were so angry and discouraged,” said Ko Maung. “Many of us wanted to pull out our coffee trees and give up!”
Fortunately, before they started pulling out their trees, Cherubim came to their village and offered to buy their coffee.
“We weren’t sure we could trust them, at first,” said Ko Maung. “But there was something different about the owner and his workers. They spent time with us, working alongside us, listening to us.”
Cherubim offered to pay Ko Maung and the other farmers three times more for their coffee than the previous agent had promised, and they insisted on paying them each time the coffee cherries were delivered.
“We dared to hope again,” said Ko Maung. “And we were glad we had decided not to tear our trees out of the ground!”
During the past three years, the community on coffee mountain has changed dramatically. “With Cherubim’s help, now our village has a new road and bridge that takes us safely down the steep mountain with our produce. They provided the water pipes that bring clean water to everyone in the village. Just recently, we also worked together to set up bamboo poles so that we could have electricity in our homes for three hours every evening. Now, for the first time in our lives, we can listen to the news and know what is happening in our country and around the world.”
Due to recent rains and flooding, the farmers on coffee mountain will likely lose about one third of their next coffee crop. “The news tells me that this kind of flooding is hurting farmers all over the world,” said Ko Maung. “In the past, I would have worried about how I would feed my family, but our contract with Cherubim gives me hope and peace.”
So What's Next?
When I asked Ko Maung what was next for coffee mountain, he did not hesitate: “As soon as possible, we need to change our energy source from diesel to solar.”
The farmer went on to explain that, on their mountain, they have one of the oldest teak tree forests in Myanmar, and also a large population of protected Gibbon monkeys and many varieties of birds close to extinction, including Myanmar’s national bird, the Great Hornbill. The farmers are aware that diesel is not only bad for the environment, but it’s more expensive than the farmers can afford.
“God has given us an ample amount of light and a big sky,” said Ko Maung. “If we could harness this energy, we could hull our coffee, deliver clean mountain water to the community, and provide electricity to many other villages on the mountain.”
I am so impressed with the ingenuity of these coffee farmers and their strong sense of responsibility to the environment. Despite their past and present difficulties, they are resilient and hopeful. At Cherubim, we feel privileged to work with such people, and we are committed to investing in their future wellbeing as farmers and as families.
This Christmas, as you enjoy Lighthouse coffee, remember Ko Maung in Myanmar and his story of hope.