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Aussie Helps Laos Hill Tribes Grow Coffee

epa01673499 Lao coffee beans on the ground and drying in the sun in a tribal Katu village in the fertile coffee growing area on the Bolaven Plateau, in southern Laos, 18 March 2009. Coffee farming in  Laos was started in the early 20th century by the French colonialists with the Robusta coffee crop favored as the most productive cash crop after opium, with Arabica coffee also grown. The beans are exported as well as roasted locally and the crops grown in village lots on the fertile plateau.  A cup of green tea ,also grown in Laos, is served with your coffee. While production is low,  Lao coffee fetches among the highest prices in the world.  EPA/BARBARA WALTON

A former Australian teacher managing a coffee company and cafe in central Laos sees the scheme as key to alleviating poverty among hill tribes.

Derek Smith, 37, and his wife Pip, 34, from Brisbane, oversee the Saffron Coffee Company in Laos’ historic town of Luang Prabang.

Saffron Coffee was set up by American David Dale and his Lao wife a decade ago.

They work with 780 hill tribe families who grow Arabica beans. Saffron Coffee buys the cherry beans from the farmers and then processes it into fresh roasted coffee.

Mr Smith says he’s building on the work of the Dales, and non-government and international agencies promoting alternative crops to overcome poverty and as an alternative to planting poppies to make opium.

“[We] get the individual farming families to take up coffee, [with] the aim is for them to be those responsible for their livelihood and to take ownership of their livelihood,” Mr Smith told AAP.

Laos is one of the poorest nations in Asia despite recent growth.

Annual incomes are around $A2000 a year although among the hill tribes who practise subsistence agriculture, incomes are as low as $A400 a year.

The region remains a key producer of opium, the base for heroin, behind Afghanistan and Myanmar.

But past Lao government efforts to eradicate opium often left hill tribe villagers facing desperate hunger without little source of income.

But Mr Smith said the story had changed. Farming families look to coffee as providing a sustainable income compared with other food crops.

“The reality has changed in the last few years. It’s very much the taking up of coffee as an alternative to maize and corn and sometimes fruit and rubber,” he said.

Mr Smith is optimistic about the outlook.

“We’ve got a really strong market opportunity for these people. They could earn significantly more from coffee than they could from anything else,” he said.

Source: SBS