Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Buy Some CafeLao

Season Stats: Shipments, Strained Backs and Subprime Loans
The last couple of months have been action packed - we finished up the harvest, and I toured the northern part of Laos and attended a couple weddings. We are still in the process of making the final payment to the farmers and have yet to ship our first washed robusta order, but within the next month we should have clear decks and can start planning for the coming harvest.

On reflection, the challenges, setbacks and frustrations this year have been many. I have made a very quick progression from the peninsula to the full island, I'm sad to say, and there have been a few days when I temporarily lost my marbles. But we have made huge progress and I want to salute the JCFC management and staff for working hard and more importantly for putting up with me.

The end of the harvest was hampered by early rains on the Plateau - always a difficulty because we need to keep the moisture content of the beans within a certain range. The rains are good news for the coming harvest, though. We put two containers out to sea in early March and discovered that we were off by only a marginal amount on our harvest plan for the year.

We came within a whisker of meeting the contract terms on the coffee (we had a few extra bags of smaller sized beans in the mix). The usual round of thankyous goes to Thanksgiving for being the understanding partner that it is. After three years of random guessing at costs, yields and participation rates, we feel confident we now have the information needed to plan budgets with a reasonable degree of accuracy - we should be able to meet contract terms and run the co-op business at break-even.

JCFC workers stepped up big this year: we were forced to have our huller and grader in separate buildings, requiring the workers to load and unload 60 tons of coffee four times over three weeks. Each bag of coffee weighs about 60kg and each worker weighs about 55kg. I personally moved about 5 tons and will be in physical therapy for the rest of the year. We are in the process of finding a permanent dry mill. The local governor has committed to a new place that we should be able to occupy for the next three years. Next year we should have a real assembly line, one hand on the throttle, one on a BeerLao.

We have yet to collect all of the outstanding loans from the farmers. They were supposed to use coffee to pay back the loan, but some of the farmers decided to game the system a bit. So we sent out our president, Noumalla, who has a very menacing scowl, and we expect to recover 100% of outstanding loans by the end of this month. The micro finance experiment largely succeeded: the JCFC got the coffee it contracted for and the farmers were able to avoid the local traders and their 200% interest rate.

Selling Beans, Wedding Bells and Stupid Bets
After wandering around in the dark for the last couple years, the JCFC program is beginning to see some light. There seems to be a growing awareness of Lao coffee and now that we have built capacity and gained certification, we are ready to build the customer base. We have some Glengary leads, two French buyers in particular, and a major sample shipment program in the works.

In a memorable family celebration, two JCFC workers married each other. Both come from coffee farming families and have been with the JCFC since the beginning. The party, in the village of the JCFC President Noumalla, was a serious bash. I'm pretty sure we emptied all the rice whisky stores on the Plateau. Unfortunately, at the wedding, the JCFC management reminded me of a bet I made last summer. Now that the season has ended and we did ship two containers, I have to swim across the Mekong next month.

New Toys
We have a new addition to the JCFC equipment pile: a very used Honda XL250. I took it for a test spin with Charley (she had her own bike, thank you) in the northwest province of Xayabouri (see map link ) for the first annual Elephant Festival (http://www.elefantasia.org/docs/festival/). We rode out of Vientiane, through the beautiful mountains around Vang Vieng and into Luang Prabang. From there we caught a long tail across the Mekong and traveled a remote stretch of road to Hongsa, the working elephant capital of Laos.

We thought we might get a break on our "short cut" coming back to Vientiane, but we got lost, inhaled a ton of Lao dust and did a couple circuits around the mountains before coming back into the big city. We had some minor engine problems and I broke the luggage carrier on my rig (the north face bag is still going), but I was able to find a qualified welder in Paklay, along the Mekong. After the 1500km trek, the minor engine problem turned out to be major: we are waiting on a new engine from Bangkok.

Had the Coffee Yet?
Part of my personal deal with Thanksgiving Coffee is that I help them build awareness and sell some coffee in return for their support. Fulfilling my part of the deal starts now, so if you would, go to Thanksgiving Coffee (http://test.thanksgivingcoffee.com/cafelao/index) and buy ten bags of Cafe Lao. Drink some, give them to friends, spread the news. You will receive a note from me in the coming weeks to support this great program.

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