Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Full of beans

Former HK-based commodity trader Sam Say’s coffee business aims to liberate Laotian farmers from poverty

Sam Say, a Laotian refugee, fled his home country with his ethnic Chinese parents in 1977. After living in Thailand, Canada and Hong Kong, a brief visit back to Laos in 2005 set him on his mission to help his native land and saw him found Bolaven Farms – a for-profit social enterprise aiming to raise the quality of life for Laotian farmers in exchange for high-quality coffee beans.

“I saw some young girls who were not in school, although at their age, they should have been,” he says.

After talking to a village head, he discovered why. “The parents didn’t think it’s important to educate [their children]. If they had money to send their children to school, they would send the boys, not the girls. [They think] women are supposed be just get married and have kids. It’s very much contrary to what I believe. Kids – boys and girls – should all go to school to get an education so that they have better choices [later in life],” he says.

Say believed that Laotians should not be so poor, given the country’s temperate climate, regular rainfall, volcanic soil and abundant sunlight. He wanted to get to the root of the country’s problems, which he did by talking to local farmers.

“They didn’t have the funding to improve what they wanted to do,” he says. “They didn’t know what crop quality and choice the world wanted. I felt that there was a need to build a training farm, to show the farmers the correct way of organic farming.”

Since then, Say has been on a quest to build fair-trade partnerships with farmers. He set up Bolaven Farms in 2007 and began growing gourmet coffee beans on Laos’s Bolaven Plateau. His endeavour harks back to the 1920s, when Laos prided itself on being one of the best gourmet-coffee producers in the world.

“The whole focus of why I started the farm is to empower the farmers so that they become successful landowners and organic coffee farmers,” Say explains.

In the first year under the partnership schemes, each farming family receives a basic rustic home, 5,000 coffee trees – about 1.5 hectares – while their children get free education. Every week, Say’s agriculturalist teaches the farmers how to grow the best coffee beans. The farmers are also paid to learn skills in Say’s crop-share training programme. The fee, in return, is good produce. “People ask why I set this up as a for-profit, not a non-profit, business,” Say adds. “I believe I can operate a business by acting justly and still be sustainable. And I don’t believe in charity. I don’t believe in dishing out my savings.”

When harvest comes, Say shares 36 per cent of the produce with the farmers. By doing everything in-house and managing the whole supply chain – from growing coffee cherries and roasting coffee beans to packaging, shipping and branding – Say hopes the model will eventually become profitable. The company ships its coffee beans to either Hong Kong or Macau, where they are packaged and labelled before being sold in high-end supermarkets.

“Our model is that we’re managing the whole supply chain, so we can say that the end-product we give you is quality,” he says. “Also, other people can take the whole concept to another country and do the same things for farmers there.”

Say opened a restaurant in Wan Chai in February as a point-of-sale. “It is really not just about branding. It’s also about promoting Laos food, culture and coffee. I wanted a platform at the retail level where you can actually engage consumers to talk about social justice, fair trade, poverty eradication, and how people can get involved,” he explains.

Say grew up in Laos, where his father had a trading business. But spillover from the Vietnam War left the land impoverished. When Say was 12, the family fled to Thailand, staying in a refugee camp for two years before immigrating to Canada, where Say was educated and began his career in real estate. A twist of fate brought him to Hong Kong in 1991.

“I went through a painful divorce,” he says, adding that he also wanted a change of environment, and to understand Chinese culture better.

Hong Kong seemed ideal. Speaking Cantonese, Putonghua and English was an advantage for Say. He got a job in a steel-trading company and eventually became a steel trader at the international commodities trading company, the Noble Group. “I worked for the company for 10 years. I learned a lot and grew with it. Hong Kong is home to me. I’ve been here for 22 years and I love this place,” he says.

The coffee bean business has proved challenging. “The journey of the past six years has been very hard. We only harvest coffee once a year. By nature, it’s a long-term thing. When you try to learn a new business, and take on the management of the whole supply chain, you often want to pull your hair out,” he says.

It seems Say’s effort and dedication may finally pay off. He expects Bolaven to start making profits next June. Due to organic farming methods, intensive labour and low supply, Say can market it as luxury coffee. “We have to be realistic about the quality we’re producing. We’re not at the very high-end spectrum yet. We’ll make it there one day,” he says.

 “What we do for farmers is really to empower them. When you empower people, you don’t tie them down with a string. You set them free,” Say explains.

To sustain his operations, farmers must buy the land from the government after the second year, as Say – who is not a Lao citizen – can only lease it. In this case, farmers are entitled to own their produce and free to choose whether to sell the coffee to Say.

“We want them to move out in a very secure manner, knowing they have savings, land planted with coffee, a basic home built. Then, we’re achieving the first aim of why we started the farm,” he adds.

With trained farmers moving out, Say hopes to train unskilled ones and achieve the business’s core value: sustainability.

To outsiders, Say may look like a dreamer, but he doesn’t worry about farmers leaving them with a void. “There are just too many landless unskilled farmers in Laos. I don’t think we’ll run out of customers [farmers],” he says.

With so many scams in the world, some people may still doubt whether such a scheme is too good to be true. “If I had wanted to start the business to make lots of money, I would not choose farming. I would not choose Laos, a land-locked country where import and export costs are a lot higher. It’s not the best place to do business,” Say states.

Today, his definition of profit is miles away from when he was a steel trader. “Our first profit is seeing a family restore hope and dignity. Then they move on, and are on their own to become self-sufficient – a proud coffee farmer.”


Sam Say’s full-bodied five points about coffee-growing on Bolaven Plateau

Model monitor
“Control the supply chain – from growing coffee cherries to picking, processing, shipping and packaging – to make the social enterprise model work.”
The goodness of ripeness
“Ensure you pick only the ripe fruit. Otherwise, this will result in poor-quality coffee beans.”
“Bo means home and Laven are the indigenous people of the plateau.”
A matter of time
“Eradicating poverty and altering a community’s quality management of agriculture take a time.”
Coffee with X-factor
“Bolaven Plateau is excellent for growing coffee, especially Arabica and Robusta, due to climate, volcanic soil, altitude, desirable temperature and rainfall.”