Local, fair-trade coffee in Yangon? That’s Genius

Rubber, rice, fisheries, beans and pulses – the list of primary products Myanmar exports is well enough known. And then Ko Ngwe Tun thought: Why not coffee?

Ko Ngwe Tun is familiar with his country’s geography. He knew where to find the right climate and the rich soil needed to grow the best coffee trees. What he didn’t find was any competition.

The technical director of an IT company, he decided to add to the list of Myanmar’s best-known natural products, and by doing so help local communities and protect the environment. Very soon his company, Genius Coffee, was born.

“Everyone drinks coffee, regardless of race, class or religion,” said Ko Ngwe Tun, sitting in the Genius coffee shop on Yangon’s 31st Street.

“When the country started to open up, I started wondering what we could export that foreigners would want. We export rice, but rice can’t be value-added. Coffee can, and it sells everywhere. That’s why I started the coffee business. If we try harder to produce high-quality coffee, we can earn foreign income,” he said.

Nature made Chin State and southern Shan State for the cultivation of coffee trees. Ko Ngwe Tun chose Ywar Ngan township, Taunggyi district, southern Shan State, where the year-round cool climate and sloping hills at an average altitude of 4000 feet (1220m) provide the ideal location for growing his Arabica beans.

He hires local farmers, Danu hill tribal families, who live in the area and depend on growing seasonal crops. In December 2011, he started to grow coffee trees in a 9-hectare (20-acre) patch of land under shady trees and even began to buy and store raw coffee from the nearby plantations.

“By growing coffee, we can create a green and pleasant environment under the shade trees. Both the shade trees and the coffee trees provide income,” he said. “The decayed leaves from the shade trees provide the best fertiliser for the coffee trees. That’s why I trust in the quality of my coffee.”

His aim is to follow the likes of Costa Rica, Kenya and Panama that aim for quality rather than quantity. “I don’t want to cultivate large plantations that damage the soil, but in small plots worked by a few farmers under shady trees,” said Ko Ngwe Tun.

Profit is not his goal. He distributes coffee trees to villagers who want to grow them and shade trees to monasteries and hospitals for greening the environment. Genius adheres to Fair Trade principles and contributes about 10 percent of the proceeds from its coffee sales toward the development of surrounding villages, supporting their schools, teaching English and providing outstanding students with stipends.
Genius also educates farmers in minimising deforestation and encourages the use of shade trees to help preserve the ecosystem.

“During the harvest time each year, we visit coffee plantations in Ywar Ngan and conduct free training. We invite the local farmers and train them how to pick the beans at the right time, to grow coffee trees and to protect the trees from the insect pests without using pesticide,” Ko Ngwe Tun said.
He acquired processing facilities and last year he opened his Genius coffee shop in 31st Street to offer local coffee drinkers the nation’s purest and finest, whether hot sweet and black in the cup, or in the form of roasted beans or ground coffee in brown paper bags.

One of the shop’s specialties is drip-bag coffee for K400. He got the idea in Japan.
“Whenever I travel abroad I usually visit coffee shops. In Japan, I saw people carrying coffee packs wherever they go,” he said.

“Many people drink poor-quality coffee mix. I want them to drink pure coffee at a low price,” he added.
“Tea shops will price a cup of pure coffee at K500 at least. I fixed a reasonable price for coffee drinkers who want the best.”

His Shan highlands coffee has been exported to Singapore and will expand to Japan soon. Last July, he sent samples to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) for analysis, scoring 81/100. This year, he raised his score to 85.

“I trust in the quality of my coffee. It can compete with the world,” he said.

Here at home, Ko Ngwe Tun wants people to know the difference between his coffee and the mixed stuff that comes in a packet. “I hope they will come to know the difference in ingredients. Genius coffee contains only natural ingredients, pure coffee, and it’s safe for health,” he said.

“Ywar Gyan is being put to the test. If the quality is high, we will expand the plantation by giving farmers free trees to grow on their land if they already have shade trees,” he said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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