Empowering indigenous communities through coffee: The Story of Akha Ama

11 Mar 2024

It was among the indigenous cultures of the mountains of Thailand, that the social enterprise idea was born. Hence Akha Ama Coffee, a coffee roastery and shop in Chiang Mai that only sells coffee from indigenous communities, with whom it trades directly. The manager, Lee Ayu, is not just a roaster but also a social worker who strives to uplift his community by supporting sustainable agriculture and empowering farmers.

A member of an indigenous Akha family himself, Lee recognizes the challenges faced by his community—economic disparity, lack of access to education, environmental degradation—and in order to bring about positive change has sought to harness the collective wisdom and strength of his people.

 

The Slow Food "Mejantai Sustainable Coffee" Community

At the heart of Akha Ama Coffee’s success is deep respect for indigenous culture and commitment to community well-being. Indigenous communities driven by Akha Ama capacity-building workshops—including the Akha village of Maejantai, in Chiang Rai province)—have embraced agroforestry coffee farming as a means of preserving their cultural heritage while also adapting to economic and environmental change.

The Slow Food “Mejantai Sustainable Coffee” Community is the latest addition to the Slow Food Coffee Coalition network and brings the voices of Thailand’s communities into the global conversation on good, clean and fair coffee.

The impact of agroforestry coffee farming

Agroforestry coffee farming has emerged as a sustainable alternative to conventional monoculture practices and offers many benefits to Thai farmers who, by integrating coffee cultivation with native trees, crops and bee-keeping, have both diversified their income streams and promoted biodiversity and soil health. Through collaborative efforts and capacity-building initiatives, indigenous farmers have transitioned from conventional, soil-depleting cash crops, such as ginger and corn, to a more resilient and ecologically sound agricultural model.

The impact of agroforestry coffee farming transcends profit alone to encompass social cohesion and environmental conservation. By fostering a sense of pride and ownership among indigenous youth, it has empowered them to reclaim their cultural identity and contribute to the sustainable development of their communities. No wonder many children of coffee farmers are either members of the Akha Ama team or have started their own coffee businesses, or that products of agroforestry, such as the honey from the bees that pollinate coffee and other fruit plants, are so sought after that demand for them exceeds supply.

By preserving forest cover and enhancing ecosystem services, farmers have also mitigated the risks of soil degradation and climate change, thus securing a more sustainable future for generations to come. Plus the fact that ecosystem preservation plays a vital role in safeguarding the right of communities to inhabit land they do not own.

The journey of Akha Ama Coffee

With their innovative approach, Lee Ayu and his team have empowered over 300 families across four provinces, laying the bases for a thriving indigenous economy in which all farmers are stakeholders in Akha Ama and do not have to rely on outside investors.

The journey of Akha Ama Coffee is a testament to the power of community-driven initiatives to win complex socio-economic and environmental challenges. As they continue to expand their impact outside national borders (they have now opened their first shop in Japan), Lee Ayu and his team remain committed to their vision of creating a more just, equitable and sustainable future for indigenous communities in Thailand. And by their collective effort, indigenous farmers are not only revitalizing their cultural heritage but also charting a path towards a more sustainable and inclusive society.

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