Laos lies in the heart of the Asian southeast, nestled between Thailand and Vietnam. Although not nearly as well known as its neighbors, to coffee enthusiasts it is an untapped resource of rich and flavorful coffee beans. With the tropical environment and a long heavy rain season, Laos is growing beans that are among the world’s best.
Laos, despite its rich environment, is facing a huge economic crisis. Poverty spreads from cities to countryside despite the people of Laos’ hardworking perseverance. Sam Say was raised in this world. In Laos, his parents felt trapped and unable to give their son the education, resources, and experience to have a successful and fulfilled life. In the mid 1960s when Sam was just a boy, the Say family made the difficult decision of leaving Laos in pursuit of better opportunities. Family, friends, and culture were left behind in the Laos jungles as they flew to the quiet snowy mountains of Calgary, Canada.
Time passed until Laos became a distant memory to Sam. It seemed to quietly fade away as this new day was full of new faces, new language and culture, new successes, new life. Sam became an investor which opened up several opportunities, one which eventually moved him to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong his business continued to grow, but more than that, the East rekindled old memories. He was reminded of Laos, the nation that raised him, the culture of his family. His short years in Laos had impacted him greatly. They were a part of him, they were his origin, his heritage.
In 2001, Sam took his then 10 year-old-son Christian for a visit to Laos to show him his father’s homeland. And although much had changed, there remained a familiar feeling of frustration. People worked tirelessly, but were nonetheless stuck in poverty. Children Christian’s age were not able to attend school, families were hungry, and people were eager for change. Sam returned with a new understanding of his home, and also a new ambition he felt determined to follow. He knew that without escaping to Canada, he and his parents might very well be in the same trouble. Sam knew the people of Laos were looking for opportunity, and he decided he was going to do something about it.
He returned to Laos several times to visit the villages and rural countryside. The country has a hot dry season and heavy rain season giving perfect conditions for coffee farming. He conducted several surveys and discovered that a huge area of opportunity lay in these farms.
Sam discovered three elements in his surveys.
First, farmers weren’t optimizing their land. No one had taught them how to best cultivate it to have a larger yield with more bountiful crops.
Second, farmers weren’t aware of what the buyers on the market wanted. The distance, culturally and physically, between the growers and the coffee drinkers was so broad with so many middlemen trying to make a profit, the farmers had no idea who they were selling to.
Lastly, because these were low-income farmers, the banks refused to loan them money, thus keeping them in perpetual need.
Sam, along with his team, put together a plan of action for the coffee farmers. In 2006, he purchased a piece of property with 6,000 coffee trees in rural Laos and by the following year, the Crop-share Training Program was underway.