LAOS: He was formerly a teacher with zero knowledge about the coffee industry – yet Singaporean Jeremy Choong decided to jump into the challenge of running a coffee plantation business in Paksong, Laos.
His big idea was to turn an ailing small-time business – owned by his Laotian wife Unit Donsavang and her family who wanted to sell off parts of it – into a high-end one that focuses on speciality coffee.
The ambitious 38-year-old saw an opportunity in the Laotian coffee renaissance. But his wife thought he was quite mad, at first.
“When I was young, my mom would climb the coffee trees and collect the red cherries in a basket on her back. It took a whole day to collect a single basketful,” she said.
"I had decided that I didn’t want to be a farmer anymore. I have seen my parents live in poverty, working on the plantation and carrying heavy baskets daily."
Mr Choong is among a growing number of bold Singaporeans who have ventured into less familiar territory to do business and work, as the series Going Places discovers. (Watch it here)
COFFEE RENAISSANCE IN LAOS
Having worked in Laos for 10 years, Mr Choong had noticed a rising demand for speciality coffee - thanks to locals with higher purchasing power and more foreigners heading there for work or holiday. Laos is one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
Said Mr Choong: “I think there has been a coffee renaissance in the production side (the farmers, buyers and traders) as well as in the cafes.
“In the last three years alone, a lot of nice, European-styled cafes have opened. That drove the demand for quality beans as well.”
But while his idea of making over a family-owned business seemed romantic enough, there were multiple challenges ahead of him, particularly the competition – in the form of more than 20,000 coffee growers in Laos.
The family, he said, lacked the technical know-how and expertise to grow quality beans, as they had been used to working with low output and selling their coffee beans at cheap prices.
“It’s very, very difficult and technically challenging to grow specialty coffee. And trees are not the easiest to take care of. They depend on so many factors – the sun, the rain and the soil. It’s going to take a long time,” he admitted.
Laotian coffee is also not as well-known as Vietnamese or Indonesian coffee, he said, and the domestic market is catered towards buyers and traders unconcerned about the quality of their beans.
SEEKING OUT THE ‘COFFEE WHISPERER’
He started off experimenting with small plots of land to grow speciality coffee beans, but the quality was found wanting. The employees were also set in their old ways and couldn’t adapt to the new processes and ways of working.
WATCH: The moment his workers learnt how a properly roasted coffee should taste (3:23)
It didn’t help that Mr Choong’s previous work experience was largely irrelevant to his latest venture – he was formerly a school teacher, and later he helped to develop hotels and restaurants in Laos.
One of his friends suggested he seek advice from Singapore’s legendary coffee roaster Mr Tan Tiong Ho, a 74-year-old who has been in the coffee business for over 50 years.
This ‘coffee whisperer’ is the brains behind Tiong Hoe Coffee, a pioneer in Singapore’s competitive coffee industry. His son started Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee in 2014, which supplies specialty coffee beans to cafes.
With a handful of coffee beans from his plantation, Mr Choong made repeated visits to Mr Tan in Singapore, appealing for his help until the sifu (master) finally relented.
The latter was brutally honest about the unsatisfactory quality of Mr Choong’s coffee beans, telling him that “If you do not accept my criticisms, I will refuse to go ahead (to advise him)”.
“He broke (the beans) apart and he could tell me everything – what tree it came from, which month it was harvested and how old the tree was,” said Mr Choong, adding that the sifu even knows how much water content is in a coffee bean simply by looking at it.
NURSERY ‘POORLY HANDLED’
In Laos, Mr Tan pointed out their rampant weed problem and how it was leeching water away from the crops. He also corrected their roasting techniques.
“It’s obvious that your nursery is poorly handled. Even though your soil is well fertilised, the seeds are too densely planted together,” he told them. “Your workers are not properly trained. I’ve seen them pick coffee beans that are not ripe for harvest.”
He also suggested they replant their trees at 15-year intervals to get the best coffee beans.
Said Mr Choong: “It is not easy to get someone like him to be interested in helping us, and it is not as if we are some high-level coffee growers.”
His friends had previously told him that they thought the idea of him being a coffee plantation owner was “very cool” – but he knows now that it’s far from the truth.
In reality, it is not that cool if all you are doing is harvesting as a farmer, trading it to a local trader. It keeps you alive but doesn't get you far.
“The industry can be quite unforgiving in that way because it's tough. There are many farmers and if you don't know how to get quality out of your beans, you don't get anywhere.”
It may be early days yet, but he is optimistic about the future of his plantation.
“I have got people behind me who are happy to be part of a family and a community enterprise. Wherever we are at now, we know that we can improve. I think the future of Paksong coffee, and Lao coffee in general, is bright,” he said.
To see how far Mr Choong gets, watch this episode of Going Places online here, or catch it on Channel NewsAsia, Sept 11 at 8pm (SG/HK).