The entrepreneurs behind K’Ho Coffee, a cooperative of local coffee farmers nestled in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, are working to change the face of coffee production in Vietnam. Rolan Co Lieng and husband Josh Guikema formed K’Ho Coffee in 2012. Producing high-quality Arabica beans, this farm-to-cup operation is working to put the value of every bean sold back into the hands of the farmers and community that produced it. Co Lieng and Guikema are also integrating sustainable practices into their coffee production.
Coffee production has been part of the K’Ho ethnic minority tribal population for generations. As Co Lieng and Guikema explain to Food Tank, “the first seeds of the coffee variety Arabica Bourbon were originally brought by French ships to Indochina by way of the Island of Bourbon. Inhabitants of the high mountainous lands in Central Vietnam, the K’Ho tribespeople began cultivating the coffee trees and passed the seeds and tradition through generations.”
Eventually, Co Lieng—a fourth-generation K’Ho coffee farmer—and Guikema formed K’Ho Coffee. The two describe the origins of the cooperative: “in 2012 we set up a small coffee wet mill and started drying our hand-picked clean coffee on parchment on raised beds in front of the family house. Other farmers joined in the work together and formed a producers cooperative.” As per Co Lieng and Guikema, the cooperative aims to keep more of the value from what the farmers produce in the community, and their on-site processing creates opportunities and employment along the supply chain. The heirloom Arabica seeds and unique growing conditions result in high-quality coffee beans.
Vietnam is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, second only to Brazil. Approximately 95 percent of the coffee produced in the country is of the Robusta variety. Robusta, or C. canephora, is a lower grade coffee typically sold as instant coffee. The success of Robusta coffee production in Vietnam is due in part to unsustainable production practices. These include large-scale monoculture, deforestation, and other types of land and water exploitation. With coffee production already under threat from climate change, these growing conditions heighten the vulnerability of coffee producers to changing temperatures.
Co Lieng and Guikema affirm to Food Tank that, “among many challenges, coffee farming is highly dependent on the weather,” with extreme weather disrupting production. In addition to focusing on the production of high-quality Arabica beans, the cooperative implements sustainable practices throughout the coffee supply chain. These include initiatives such as growing nitrogen fixing plants together with coffee to improve the soil organically. They also grow fruit-producing shade trees, nuts, and vegetables and raise free-range livestock to make their farming village community self-sustaining. When asked about their vision for coffee production in the future, the pair responded, “we’d like to see coffee continue to grow in sustainable agroforestry systems that will directly benefit the families of coffee producers.”
Photo courtesy of K’Ho Coffee.