Review of Pendergrast: Beyond Fair Trade

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Pendergrast, Mark, Beyond Fair Trade: How One Small Coffee Company Helped Transform a Hillside Village in Thailand, Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.2, No.3 (Sep-Dec, 2015), pp.60-2.

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2015; XV + 270 pp.; ISBN: 9781771-640474

Mark Pendergrast is an independent scholar who counts among his publishing credits a global history of coffee and its drinking entitled Uncommon Grounds. He has drawn upon some of the research conducted for that book for this case study on the Doi Chaang Coffee Company, which has become one of the most well-known Thai brands, albeit one which has only limited competition in this regard. The company is a joint venture between the British-born Canadian investor John Darch, who markets and distributes the coffee in his home country, with the Akha coffee growing community in northern Thailand.

Coffee growing in Thailand is a comparatively recent phenomenon as compared to its neighbours and has become associated with opium eradication. The Akha people are among the many ethnic groups living in the northern Mekong region and have migrated there in the past. As ethnic people who do not speak a Tai-based language, they have faced marginalization and poverty. One of the few ways available to them to generate income was to grow opium, which has a ready market in western countries in the form of heroin, as well as domestically. The demand for opium flourished during the period of the Second Indochinese War (known in western countries as the Vietnam War), when the recreational use of heroin among US troops and others helped them overcome the trauma and alienation caused by the conditions. Partly as a consequence, it has been American support and airpower that has been used to eradicate poppy growing. Demand for drugs in the local and regional market has switched to methamphetamines, which can be manufactured in small factories but the chemicals involved have a characteristic and telltale odour that means they tend to be secreted in remote, probably forested areas.

People who used to grow opium have to grow something else but they often do not have the knowledge to do so, the capital required to buy inputs (e.g. seeds, fertilisers and equipment) or access to a market in which to sell their products. Various attempts have been made by government agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs), including missionary groups, to try to solve this problem across the region. Most of these attempts have been failures because, even when saleable products are grown, rural infrastructure is often so poor that it is too difficult and expensive to get the goods to market and still make a profit. There are also issues surrounding the ability of small farmers to engage with distant markets on an equitable basis. Buyers, after all, can simply refuse to buy products and agricultural commodities are notoriously volatile in terms of price. Farmers who do seek to abandon subsistence agriculture in favour of market-based production also face the risk of food insecurity, since they are no longer growing the rice and other staples they and their families would normally eat. This risk is to be balanced against the prospects of a better lifestyle and acquisition of consumer goods available from a successful switch to market-based production.

These issues are at the heart of the Akha coffee growing story because it has only been with substantial outside support that it has been possible for the coffee growers to survive until the time of writing the book and, even so, it is far from clear that the business is really sustainable in the long-term. Outside support has come from technical experts in Thailand, who have helped the farmers learn how to harvest high quality coffee beans on a consistent basis and to deal with any pests that might be encountered. There has also been the extraordinary role played by Wicha Promyong, who is a world-roaming guitar-playing guru with an urgent desire to help the poor Akha, whom he views (and this is also the voice of the author) as people not interested in handouts or transfer payments but willing to do whatever is necessary to help themselves. However, the most important role has been played by Darch, who has invested a great deal of effort, time and money to try to make Doi Chaang popular throughout North America. In doing so, he has borne a great deal of the financial risk himself because of the agreement he has made with the Akha growers, which in effect has shielded them from any losses by guaranteeing purchase of coffee beans at a fixed and agreed price reached quite independently of the international brokered price. It is this guaranteed price that has inspired the book’s title, since the treatment of the growers goes far beyond what would be required to attain fair trade status. Indeed, the arrangement is so generous it would be interesting to discover quite what has motivated the banker and investor Darch to act in such a way. However, the reader is left only to conclude that it is because of his personal virtue.

The book tells the story of this partnership and the problems that have been overcome on the way. The sections that deal with the Akha and their lifestyle are quite interesting and rather more entertaining than the lengthy sections set in Canada detailing organizational development and marketing issues. As a business case study, it lacks a relationship with existing theory and is slightly too unwilling to be critical of the principal players. It is also describing a business that has yet to come to a definitive conclusion or resolution. The fact that the author feels the need to shift to a first person perspective for the concluding chapters suggests that he too feels somewhat unconvinced by how the book was likely to end.

Pendergrast takes a simple, almost simplistic reading of contemporary Thai history, repeating the usual lies about the Pheu Thai government and suggesting the 2014 coup was an attempt to resolve political difficulties (the usual disclosure about working for Shinawatra University of course applies here). This is perhaps a safe approach but it indicates a superficiality of thought and causes the reader, this reader anyway, to wonder what else about the story would be subject to reinterpretation. In all, then, this is a flawed attempt to tell an interesting story at perhaps too great a length – 200 pages would have been more than enough to include everything that would have been required, although it is possible that the publisher was influential in this regard.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

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