Market Reports

The rapid growth of Myanmar’s coffee industry

Change has come rapidly to Myanmar over the past few years. After more than 50 years of rule under a brutal military regime, the South-East Asian nation has until recently been something of a pariah state. That has begun to change now, with openly contested elections held in Myanmar (previously known as Burma) in November 2015, and the swearing in of the nation’s first civilian leader in more than half a century in March this year. But far away from the political revolution taking place in the nation’s capital Naypyidaw, another, somewhat quieter but arguably just as far reaching revolution has been taking place among the nation’s coffee farmers. The Value Chains for Rural Development project is funded by the United States development agency USAID, and implemented by a US non-profit organisation, Winrock International, whose goal is to empower the disadvantaged, increase economic opportunity, and sustain natural resources. The project aims to improve the productivity and quality of Myanmar coffee, develop its coffee value chain, and create awareness about Myanmar coffee in the specialty coffee industry. The work of the project also includes addressing issues related to gender equality, association development, and marketing components, particularly among smallholder farmers, women, and ethnic minorities. In order to achieve these goals, Winrock has also enlisted the help of the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), a fellow non-profit that works internationally to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of people who produce it. The role of CQI is to bring international expertise in a coherent, targeted approach, to maximise impact. The first year saw thousands of smallholder producers being trained in good agricultural practices (GAP), including processing training, in Shan central state. In addition to this, CQI has been working with Winrock and the Myanmar Coffee Association to develop activities such as quality competitions, value chain cupping trainings, roasting and barista trainings, and a specialised marketing strategy to create awareness about Myanmar coffee. One such outcome of this work has been the development of the annual Myanmar Coffee Association cupping competition, the second instalment of which was held in the former capital Pyin Oo Lwin in March this year. Andrew Hetzel has worked with CQI to develop the competition over the past two years. Hetzel has spent the past 15 years as a Coffee Value Chain Consultant, working with coffee stakeholders in more than 40 countries including coffee producers and producer associations in East Africa, India, South America, South-East Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. Despite this extensive experience, Hetzel says he has been pleasantly surprised by the attitudes and output he found during his time in Myanmar. “This is unlike other coffee producing origins where producers lack incentive or sometimes initiative to improve,” he tells GCR Mag. “In Myanmar, they’ve been waiting for this opportunity.” It is this willingness to embrace the opportunities before them that has seen this cupping competition develop from an exploratory adventure in its first year, to a bona fide quality coffee event in 2016, Hetzel says. “The first year was focused more on discovery: gaining an assessment of the landscape of available coffees from key growing regions to identify strong and weak performing areas,” Hetzel tells GCR Mag. Both 2015 and 2016 cupping events employed CQI Q Graders using Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) cupping standards and protocols, which generated diagnostic information for all producers in addition to marketing benefits for the winners. But Hetzel says the shift in standard from one year to the next was startling. “As a judge, year two was an entirely different event,” he says. ”We were no longer separating specialty from subspecialty coffees but rather, 84s from 86s and higher!” Hetzel says that the attitude of the coffee producers was best summed up by the US Ambassador, Derek Mitchell, when he visited the country in February. “I am paraphrasing, but he basically said, ‘Burma was once the wealthiest nation in Asia, having been held back through decades of struggle, they want to reclaim their top position. They have the hardworking attitude, attention to detail and drive to succeed. It’s practically in their DNA’,” Hetzel says. He says the progress has been nothing short of extraordinary. In terms of the coffee being produced in Myanmar, Hetzel says he believes it has the potential to go all the way to the top.
“With so much advancement in just one growing season, I really don’t know how far they will be able to go in the next five, 10 years or more,” he says. “They are on a very fast track to becoming the highest quality coffee in Asia.” According to Hetzel, the most prevalent varietal grown in Myanmar is Catuai, followed by S795 (Indian variety), Catimor, and SL34.  “There is some difference in the varieties that you see from region to region dependent on the weather patterns and related exposure to leaf rust,” Hetzel says. The main growing areas are located at approximately 21 degrees north latitude, giving them ideal temperatures for Arabica production without too much elevation.  Weather conditions for coffee farming are ideal in the Mandalay and Ywangan regions in the centre of the country. Myanmar has monsoon summers that, as in India, bring on the first flowering, which is followed by a period of cool to warming temperatures with plenty of sunlight and occasional rain. Right at the time of harvest is a dry season, which while unusual to most coffee growing areas, seems to be perfectly timed to the harvest, Hetzel says.  “Coffees can be picked and sundried [washed or naturals] without too much fear of moisture damage. Soil conditions are difficult though, high in magnesium and low in other needed nutrients and fertilisers are scarce, so we’re looking at ways of implementing natural solutions for organic fertilisation to improve productivity and overall quality.” A resident of Hawaii, which boasts its own not inconsiderable reputation as a producer of quality coffee, Hetzel says he saw some parallels between the coffees being produced in Myanmar to those there. “[The latitude] places it pretty much in line with my home state of Hawaii,” Hetzel says. “Most of the coffees we tasted in competition were grown at between 1000 – 1500 metres above sea level, which is about the same to a little higher than Kona’s better growing climates. One sample we received came in from over 1800 metres, which I understand risks frost damage during winter nights, so producers cover the trees in blankets and light fires underneath to keep them warm.” While the quality of the coffee is impressive, Hetzel says the conditions faced by the farmers there are still difficult. “Right now, there is little or no sale of quality/price differentiated coffees, so farming is a struggle,” he says.  In Mandalay, most of the farms are larger estates, and the producers organised and educated but have lacked access to international markets for selling coffee. As a result, much of what was produced has been consumed locally or traded at commodity prices, or across borders with China and Thailand. In Shan State, the farmers are individual smallholders, each tending to small lots of little more than an acre.  “Many involved in coffee production, particularly in the smallholder farming areas, are living in poverty,” Hetzel says. “To their credit, some of these small farming areas are highly organised with their own village cooperative structures, which allows them to implement improvements across a number of individuals very quickly.” It is this attitude and tendency towards professionalism that has most impressed Hetzel about coffee farmers in Myanmar. In fact, he says, it was not long after that first competition in 2015 that he saw evidence of this desire to improve. “After the first competition was over, I started getting Facebook friend requests from many of those who submitted samples,” he says, adding that the social network is incredibly popular in the country, with the US Embassy in Yangon having more than 800,000 followers and information about CQI’s work there consistently attracting high levels of traffic whenever it is posted. “Soon after, I received messages asking me to help them review their scoresheets and figure out what they mean, where they had gone wrong and how to improve! I was floored. It was a good introduction to Myanmar.” The most recent competition held in Yangon was yet another illustration of the farmers’ willingness to grow and adapt. Of the 58 samples collected, 21 were evaluated at 80 points or higher on a 100-point scale, thus qualifying as specialty coffee according to the standards defined by the SCAA. And this, Hetzel says, is just the beginning. “Myanmar has the potential and the drive to be a producer on par with the best of any [producer nation] worldwide,” he says. GCR

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