WorldFootprints_logo

Connecting you to the world
one story at a time

Coffee in Laos: an Unlikely Pathway out of Poverty

When people think of Southeast Asia, Thailand and Vietnam often come to mind first. But squeezed between them is Laos, a country covered in dense jungles and lush mountains perfectly suited for growing coffee, a relatively new crop that has grown recently in importance to the nation’s economy. Coffee plantation tours, cafes that source their coffee from local growers, and coffee farm homestays are creating alternative income for families in rural Laos as well as enjoyable opportunities for visitors.

A Perfect Climate for Coffee

With its high temperatures and accompanying thick humidity, Laos is an ideal place to embrace a slower pace of life and sip away an afternoon over coffee. Coffee here is typically served to tourists in cafes over ice with a heaping layer of condensed milk.

Locals particularly love their coffee early in the morning after Tak Bat (almsgiving). A true observer of Lao culture will know that the day hasn’t started if there hasn’t been coffee. Locals aren’t concerned about having a fancy flat white, and in fact, they prefer instant coffee doused in Teapot milk, the way you’ll find it served at most street stalls.

A local cafe with a local gathering. Photo: Tara Tadlock
A local cafe with a local gathering. Photo: Tara Tadlock

Coffee Comes to Laos Via Colonialism

Despite having the ideal conditions to grow the crop and local enthusiasm for the finished product, coffee hasn’t always been at the forefront of Lao industry. Coffee was brought over by the French in the early 1900s, but it only became a crop of major value in the 2000s after the Lao government opened its borders to tourists and Laotians turned to coffee growth after an aggressive opium clearing program.

In 1998, the Lao government began burning existing opium fields to ashes in an attempt to make the country “drug-free” after the Opium War of 1967. The Northern Hill tribes of Laos depended heavily on the growth and sales of opium for their livelihood. It was their main cash crop and Laos, together with Myanmar and Thailand, produced an estimated 70 percent of the all the opium sold globally in the 1970s. When Lao opium fields were destroyed in the late 90s, farmers were left without the income stream that supported them for years. These farmers should not be misconstrued as drug mules. Opium was an acceptable source of income for people who, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, earned per capita incomes as low as $300 per year. With the new anti-drugs stance of the government, the people of Laos were forced to figure out how to use their land in a new way.

French colonists had planted coffee in the volcanic soil of southern Laos before the outbreak of World War II. While coffee growth continued in the south long after Laos gained its independence in 1954, farmers in this region primarily focused on growing rice in their fields since it is a staple food of the Lao diet. In northern Laos, rice production was an incredibly tricky process due to the steep mountain terrain and dense canopy coverage. Consistent fog and cooler temperatures add a delicate extra layer of work for farmers. If the rice plants somehow made it to harvest, the yields were low in comparison to the labor involved. So, after the banning of opium, northern tribe farmers developed a way to produce shade-grown coffee.

Coffee plantation in Laos. Photo: MTC Group
Coffee plantation in Laos. Photo: MTC Group

Coffee and the Boom of Tourism

Coffee as a new cash crop for Laos was timed perfectly with a boom of tourism. Weary travelers hopping off slow boats from Thailand into the little UNESCO town of Luang Prabang were always looking for a shot of espresso to get them going. Coffee production led to coffee tourism, which has resulted in steady economic growth thanks to export markets and caffeine-crazed tourists.

Travelers in Laos who book coffee tours with fair-trade roasters, stay with local families, and grab their lattes from do-good cafes are casting a vote for responsible travel, and they should feel good knowing they are spending their dollars to boost the local economy.

Socially Responsible Coffee Cafes

Saffron Coffee in Luang Prabang is a cafe that has partnered with over 800 local coffee farmers from 25 different villages across four provinces to grow and harvest their coffee. Saffron employs locals to run their white-walled, wooden-beamed cafe and pays them a dignified living wage for their work.

Like Saffron, Common Grounds café in Vientiane, has a socially responsible mission. The cafe supports local projects that help women who are “exiting exploitative work environments.”

Even in Paxsong, a city most tourists have never heard of, there exists a philanthropic coffee roaster. Jhai Coffee House, in addition to its coffee business, provides clean drinking water to schools in the Bolevan Plateau.

Inside Saffron Cafe. Photo Tara Tadlock
Inside Saffron Cafe. Photo Tara Tadlock

Aiming for a Greener Business Model

There’s no doubt that coffee has been good to Laos but, like most other countries in Southeast Asia, there is a lot of work to be done to make the industry “greener.” This is particularly true of the delivery of the finished product, which uses a lot of plastic. Typically, street coffee vendors and local corner shops will serve up the beverage after it has been brewed in a massive tin, poured through a strainer, and dumped into a plastic bag of ice that is tied off with a rubber-band and put inside another plastic bag with handles for easy carrying. Straws almost always accompany an iced coffee, though you can ask for it to be left out of your drink if you want to lessen your plastic consumption.

Ultimately, coffee has become an unlikely pathway out of poverty for many Laotians. Not only is it a major export and it has created jobs for locals, but it’s also been particularly positive for ethnic minority farmers in Laos who live away from main cities where most of the economic opportunity exists.

In Laos, the coffee industry is an economical solution to poverty. Along with the steady increase in foreign visitors, coffee has become a lucrative business for local people and an opportunity for sustainable income, something sorely needed in a country where the average person lives off $1.25 a day according to the United Nations Development Programme. The U.N. reports that figure represents a 25 percent increase over the last four years, in part because of the growth of coffee as an industry.

Coffee at a Laos cafe. Photo: Tara Tadlock
Coffee at a Laos cafe. Photo: Tara Tadlock

go___________

Aerial view of Niagara Falls with a Maiden of the Mist boat.

Exploring Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls, one of America’s most scenic wonders, wasn’t always a pristine park open to the public. Comprised of three waterfalls that straddle the U.S.-Canadian border, the falls have a long history; not all of it pretty. Industrial factories once…

Read more »
Capt. Tucker and Hercules. Photo: Kathleen Walls

Cajun Culture in Lafayette Parish

In Southern Louisiana, French Canadian migrants settled and intermingled with the existing community to create a unique ethnic group, the Cajuns, whose culture continues to thrive today. Visitors can learn more about the Cajuns through a visit to Lafay…

Read more »
View of Lake Chelan. Photo: Eliza Amon

No Roads Lead to Stehekin

Tucked in the rugged North Cascade Mountains near the Canadian border, is a town unreachable except by ferry, foot or flight. Remote as Stehekin is, the Washington town is a hub for nature lovers looking to hike, kayak, ride horses or fish in a nationa…

Read more »
Exterior of the Royal Bathouse in Tbilsi. Photo: Sarah May Grunwald

Visiting Tbilisi’s Natural Baths

The Georgian capital Tbilisi’s name derives from a word that means warm place. The word applies to both the glorious sulfur baths on which the city was founded, as well as the generosity and warmth of the Georgian people.  A trip to the baths allows vi…

Read more »

Visiting Panama’s Embera People

Our wooden longboat plied the Chagres River deeper and deeper into the Panamanian rain forest. Soon the boatmen, one wearing a loincloth and the other a beaded skirt, were poling us through channels so narrow that it looked like the river had disappear…

Read more »
uzbekistan-bike.jpg

Cycling in Uzbekistan

In many ways Uzbekistan is a fantastic country to cycle through – the friendly hospitality, exotic culture, stunning architecture and, of course, the excitement of exploring faraway lands, well away from the beaten tourist trail. Tashkent Mosque. Uzbek…

Read more »
Burundi village

A Burundian Lesson in Hospitality

It’s evening in the small African nation of Burundi, and the waning sun throws shadows over the city of Bujumbura. In the old Land Rover, we bump and jostle our way through the crowded dirt roads of the capital. Before we left the mission station where…

Read more »
Statue honoring the underground railroad along the Riverwalk in Detroit.

Heartbeat of Detroit

I didn’t know a single thing about Detroit when I moved here a year ago. Most people plan where they want to move but when your spouse is in medical school, you don’t always have the luxury of choice or time. The sudden relocation to the city was a sur…

Read more »

Three Stops on the Trail of Tears

The rich culture and heritage of the Cherokee people and the story of their forced removal from their homeland is sometimes lost amid undifferentiated accounts of indigenous people in the United States. Three stops along the Georgia section of the Trai…

Read more »
Amazon River at night

Adventures on the Amazon

I stepped back into the dark brown muck and leaned on the tree behind me to get a better photo of the anaconda slithering in my direction. I was motionless for a mere two seconds when Ericson Pinedo, our local naturalist, jerked me back by my arm and q…

Read more »

Eau Claire’s Artistic Wonders

The American heartland city of Eau Claire is enjoying an artistic renaissance. Sitting at the junction of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers in Wisconsin, Eau Claire is French for “clear water,” and water is a defining physical feature of the city. Its…

Read more »

Greece By Sea

“Ferries are for wimps,” our guide Tim’s t-shirt read. It was a motto befitting my tour groups’ plan to spend a week swimming 5km a day between and alongside the Sporades, a cluster of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. I’d traveled to Greece with four f…

Read more »
Arch leading into Tehran

Discovering Iran by bicycle

I’ve travelled almost 20,000km by bicycle through over 15 countries. Often one of the first questions I’m asked when people discover this is, “What’s been your favourite country to cycle through?” Without hesitation I always answer, “Iran.” Photo:  Hav…

Read more »
Voralberg, Austria

The Tastes of Vorarlberg

In August 2015, I left Canada for greener pastures, departing on a ten month exchange year to Austria. My year spent abroad was unique in many ways, I lived with a host family, attended Austrian school, learned German and explored my surroundings. One…

Read more »
hong-kong-skyline.jpg

Visiting Hong Kong on a budget

Hong Kong is a world famous travel destination that caters mostly to urban adventurers. Although a holiday in Hong Kong can be costly, there are a few inexpensive options you can enjoy without breaking the bank. Hong Kong is an important economic and t…

Read more »
Viewing the Burundi landscape from two angles

A Trip to Burundi

Ask any average Westerner, and they likely won’t be able to point out Burundi on the map. Although this tiny country is virtually ignored when it comes to East African tourism, that’s no reason why it shouldn’t be on your travel bucket list. What makes…

Read more »
Robben Island.  Photo:  Tonya Fitzpatrick

On Freedom’s Trail in South Africa: A Personal Journey to Places Shaping the Rainbow Nation

From the new Morgan Freeman film, Invictus, to the 2010 FIFA World Cup Games, South Africa has become a lead actor on the world’s stage. What is most striking about this beautiful nation is that the South African natural landscape is as compelling as the journey through the places shaping the country’s transformation from apartheid to a multicultural democracy.

Read more »