Vanmai Coffee Cooperative is a community of families in Huaphan Province in northern Laos, growing coffee to leave behind a troublesome past.
Vanmai means new day in the local Lao language.
With the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Lao Commission for Drug Control and Supervision (LCDC), 383 Vanmai farmers began their transition towards cultivating coffee in late 2016. Since then, their achievements have been many. With the assistance of UNODC experts and agronomists, they have planted around 400 hectares of coffee and established their own cooperative to independently process and commercialize coffee for premium international markets.
Supported by UNODC’s Alternative Development project, wet processing centers have already been installed across 12 coffee-growing communities. The construction of a warehouse, a dry mill, and an office for the cooperative —boasting its own coffee shop— is scheduled to begin in 2021.
April 6, 2021 marked a further remarkable step for Vanmai farmers. A five-year partnership agreement with the renowned French Coffee Roaster Malongo was signed and their coffee export expects to increase over five-year period, from 20 tons in 2021 to 200 tons in 2025.
“We will improve the quality of our coffee, the organic coffee that is free from toxic chemical, because we think it is the way to add value to our products and to protect environment” said Savaythong Khounsavanh, President of the Vanmai Cooperative. “We believe that the project will help villagers in the area, particularly twelve targeted villages in the four districts of Hua Phan province, have a better livelihood in the future.”
Supported by the project, Vanmai has recently established a women’s network with 12 elected members. With the aim of building a cohort of female leaders, the project supports this group with in-depth trainings on coffee as a business. Being a member of the women’s network and the Vanmai Cooperative, Ms Siathor Yialao is happy that she can participate in the project from the beginning. She believes the project can help her family and other families in the villages to be out of poverty. “I want to earn money so I can send my children to school and I can buy things in the market. Before the project, I did not have money to travel outside of my home province. Now, I can travel to other provinces. And one day, I think I will earn enough money to travel abroad.” She added: “But as women, we also have difficulties. Many women in my village cannot speak the main Lao language fluently. That is why it is not easy to communicate and get all information about the project”.
Ms. Sengvida Sengmanivong, from Na Or village, the leader of the Vanmai Women’s Network, found the positive thing that the project brings to her and other women is that there is no more opium plantation in the area. She was confident: “We can earn income without opium. Thanks to the project, we are now with higher incomes than before. We can buy medicines and household items for our daily life.” Members from the Women’s Network of the 12 villages participated on the trainings on coffee tasting and gender empowerment and they hope to have the chance to participate in other trainings in the future. Women’s Network also set up interest groups for their participants to share knowledge with others. Sengvida said: “It is not only about coffee plantation, but also about other things in life that we can talk and share. We feel that we have more solidarity among villagers through these activities”.
This UNODC-led project was recently extended to December 2023 based on available funding, with the aim to continue supporting local efforts until at least 2025. Over the coming project cycle, UNODC will continue to build up the management skills of the Vanmai Cooperative, based on a solid democratic foundation that also empowers women. The project aims to double the cultivation area in the coming years, with the objective of assisting more beneficiaries in the communities who want to transition from opium crops, while building a financially sustainable and resilient cooperative. The project has been funded by the Governments of Luxembourg, the United States, Germany, and Japan.