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Former opium farmers in northern Lao PDR are on the way to establishing the first coffee cooperative in Houaphanh Province

Houaphanh, Lao PDR (7 November 2019)
- In the mountains of northern Lao PDR, farmers have been growing opium for generations. For many families in Houaphanh, the country's second-highest opium-cultivating province, growing the illegal crop is their only option for survival. However, these families are dependent on traders, smugglers, and other third parties to process and sell their products, leaving them with very little. In addition to poverty, farmers are subject to the socioeconomic hardships of drug use. Farmers and their relatives have fallen and continue to fall victim to drug addiction, which affects families' work and income potential.

In 2016, 331 families decided to try something different. Over the past three years, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Alternative Development Programme has been working with Vanmai Coffee, a community of what is now 381 farming families that want to create another option for themselves. With the support of the governments of Lao PDR, Luxembourg, the United States of America, and Germany, the Vanmai families have been working together to establish coffee as a sustainable income alternative to opium. They have established coffee plantations with guidance from project agronomists and trainers, and started learning about processing of specialty coffee in order to create a high value product.

While continuing to train on cultivation and preparing for the first harvest, the farmers began to take steps towards establishing a cooperative. Since 2018, with the support of the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Deutscher Genossenschafts Und Raifeissenverband E.V. (DGRV), farmers have participated in trainings on cooperative management and business planning. As joint owners of a cooperative, the farmers aim to commercialize their coffee without the need for traders and middlemen.

"By working together, we hope these farmers can identify markets and buyers themselves, better negotiate prices, and have more control over their coffee supply chain." says Erlend Falch, Alternative Development Programme Manager at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Lao PDR.

In November 2019, the Vanmai Coffee farmers held their first general assembly, taking another step towards establishing the first coffee cooperative in the region. This milestone event brought 47 farmer representatives from twelve villages to the province capital of Sam Neua to vote on a regulatory statute and business plan that will guide Vanmai's first year as an official cooperative.

The farmers took charge of the assembly co-chaired by Mr. Jouma, a farmer from Houayyarm Village, and Mr. Konethai Keonakhone, deputy general director of the Houaphanh Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office (PAFO). Farmer Mr. Mai Kham from Nasikhamxai Village presented and led the revision of the statute, of which farmers and government officials discussed and amended together along with a business plan that outlined budgets, coffee processing logistics, and markets. Both the statute and business plan are necessary in order to apply for a national cooperative license.

The general assembly is the largest gathering of the Vanmai farmers so far. With these remote villages ranging from hours to days away from each other, such gatherings are significant.

"I am very happy to see so many farmers together," says Mr. Savaithong, farmer from Na-Or Village and newly-elected chair of Vanmai Coffee. "With many people and many mouths, we will bring the content and the spirit of our assembly back home and share with many others in our villages."

Once the board implements the amended statue and business plan, it will formally submit a cooperative application to the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

For more information, please visit or follow Vanmai Coffee on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @vanmaicoffee.