The Promising Future of Myanmar's Coffee Industry
Myanmar is a country with the perfect geography and climate for coffee production. It has ample elevation with nearly the entire Shan State region above 1000 meters and receives plentiful rainfall due to its position along the Indian Ocean. But you'll almost never encounter it at a café. So why is coffee from Myanmar so rare? The problem begins at politics and spirals outward from there.
Until very recently Myanmar's government was exclusively controlled by its military, resulting in decades of political and economic isolation. During this time only a small percentage of land was dedicated to coffee production. The vast majority of this coffee was commodity grade or lower, and was sold through unofficial transactions with neighboring countries such as China, Laos, and Bangladesh. Commodity grade or sub-commodity grade coffee sells at a very low price, sometimes dipping so low that it's less than the cost of production. Brazil and Vietnam, the two largest coffee producing nations in the world, are partially what drive this cost down. With their incredibly high yields per acre and mechanized harvesting processes these countries can beat out any small farm operation. Another contributing factor to this low price is the way that coffee is traded. Prices are frequently not determined by what is fair or profitable for farmers, but on speculation and predictions by traders, much like the stock market. The lack of connection to international trade routes and the extremely low price of commodity coffee resulted in a stunted coffee industry in Myanmar.
In recent years, Myanmar has benefited from political and economic reform as the military has relinquished part of its control to the National League for Democracy (NLD). Politically, Myanmar has a long and potentially rough road ahead, but it has made important strides in the right direction. When the NLD took power in 2016 Myanmar became a country of interest for economic investment and development.
One of the biggest hurdles Myanmar's coffee industry faces is the lack of sorting and grading. In order to fetch higher prices coffee must be graded according to the Specialty Coffee Association's scale and properly sorted to ensure all of the beans are of the same quality. Specialty grade certification requires a score of at least 80 out of 100. With no ability to grade their coffee, farmers in Myanmar could not tap into the much more lucrative specialty markets. In 2015, however, Winrock International and the Coffee Quality Institute launched a 5-year program to modernize Myanmar's coffee industry by updating farming practices, improving sorting and grading, and offering introductions into the international markets. As previously stated, Myanmar has the perfect conditions to grow excellent coffee, and with the farming and marketing reforms, the farmers are beginning to reap the benefits.
A growing percentage of Myanmar's coffee is now certified as specialty and sold as such. This means that some farmers are no longer tied to commodity prices which hover around $1 per pound. Coffees can now reach prices of $3-4 per pound and up to $10 per pound for the best crops. In just a few short years farmers have been able to triple their profitability. Increased profitability will incentivize other small farms to begin growing coffee or modify their practices to tap into the specialty market. Coffee output in Myanmar is still dwarfed by the global giants, but it is on the rise.
An increase in publicity will further grow Myanmar's industry. Just recently Honeybee competed in the US Coffee Championships roaster qualifying event in Nashville. The coffee sent to all competitors was from the Shan State region of Myanmar, giving the country the attention of some of the top roasters in the United States. Industry trends also point to people valuing exotic or interesting sources in which the farmers are paid fairly. Myanmar is perfectly situated to capitalize on these trends.
Looking forward, the coffee industry in Myanmar will have to tackle the infrastructure problem. New roads will have to be built to link the small farms to processing and shipping locations. These facilities will have to be updated to meet the standards of global markets and ensure product safety and quality. Trade routes will have to be established, and port cities will likely need to improve their shipping capacities as Myanmar grows and further integrates into the international economy.
Despite having much more to do, Myanmar is a perfect example of positive trends in the specialty coffee industry. By updating their practices and having access to more lucrative markets, the farmers in Myanmar have a chance to do more than just scrape by. The specialty coffee community offers these farmers a competitive chance against the coffee powerhouses of the world resulting in a higher quality of living for the farmers and a higher quality cup for consumers.
Honeybee does not currently offer coffee from Myanmar, but be on the lookout for it here and elsewhere. By purchasing cups of coffee from developing sources like Myanmar you can help fuel the improvement occurring there. At both of our cafés we do offer retail bags from Marmelade, Haiti, another developing coffee source of the world. Haiti is in the beginning steps of modernizing its coffee industry and breaking into the specialty market. Our Marmelade beans are certified as specialty grade, and $5 of the revenue from each bag will be sent to CREOLE, Inc. to be invested into coffee farming practices in the region.
The coffee world is constantly changing, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. What is going on in Myanmar and places such as Haiti, Peru, Sudan, and others seems to be for the better. Quality is going up and better wages are following. Higher wages mean better standards of living, and that's something we can all get behind. We encourage you to seek out coffees from these developing regions, because they are becoming increasingly available. It might take a little bit of searching, but we think it's worth it.
The Weeks’ Links:
Growing Coffee in Haiti (Article)
Authors: Aaron Hill & Alex Wuethrich