Doi Tung coffee from royal project eyeing U.S. market

Doi Tung coffee, grown by hill tribe people under a royal project in the mountains of northern Thailand, is planning to ramp up exports and is eyeing entering the United States market, where specialty and gourmet coffees are popular, the head of the foundation that oversees the enterprise said last week.

“We are looking for partners who understand our role as a social enterprise and are flexible when doing business together,’” said ML Dispanadda Diskul, the chief executive of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which developed the royal project that gave birth to Doi Tung coffee.

The project produces 250 tons of coffee beans a year from 800 coffee-growing hill tribe households, and is already exporting between 30 tons and 50 tons a year to Japan. The coffee is found in most supermarkets in Thailand and the project runs 11 Doi Tung cafes around the country that brought in $2.4 million in sales last year.

Global coffee consumption continues to rise and in developed markets such as the U.S. there is a growing thirst for specialty and exotic blends. That presents an opportunity for Doi Tung to enter and make a mark in the U.S. where Americans spend an estimated $4 billion on coffee each year, according to Dispanadda.

Dispanadda said that rather than expanding coffee production to more households to meet higher volumes for export, it will improve the productivity of its existing growers as well as experimenting with new techniques from experts from other coffee-growing countries.

“We keep seeking new coffee varieties to develop new and outstanding tastes. The foundation also collaborates with coffee experts from Japan, Guatemala and Panama, who have been offering advice on coffee plantation and processing practices,” Disnadda said.

Princess Mother Srinagarinda, the mother of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and grandmother of King Vajiralongkorn, established the foundation in 1972. Its name “Mae Fah Luang” means Royal Mother from the Sky, as that was what the hill people called the Princess Mother because she would often arrive in remote villages by helicopter to deliver healthcare, development ideas and other forms of aid.

The foundation introduced coffee farming as a response to a problem – the growing of opium, which is the raw material for heroin, by hill peoples in northern Thailand. Rather than try to end opium production by force, the royal family used crop substitution programs to provide them with an alternative livelihood. Since then, opium growing has all but disappeared from Thailand.