The World Will Soon Taste Lao Coffee
by Maja Wallengren
The Laotian government has laid out plans for major expansions of its highly-praised coffee industry in the southern highlands and hopes soon to see itself as a stable producer for the world market. According to industry officials, robusta coffee production in Laos totaled some 10,000 tons in 1995, which is worth about $20 million on the international market, out of which 9,481 tons were produced in the south of the country. The 1995-production from the Bolaven Plateau--comprising areas of the three southern provinces of Champasak, Saravan and Sekong--saw a 50 percent increase, up from just 6,000 tons in 1994. But that figure is set for a rapid future increase, at least if industry officials get it their way.
The Lao Association of Coffee Exporters (ACE) wants the current 26,000 hectares of coffee plantations expanded in addition to carrying out rehabilitation of the old trees, some of them planted by French colonialists more than 60 years ago in the early 1930s, ACE Vice President Bounlap Nhouyvanisvong said. "By the year 2000 we expect to export at least 15,000 tons of coffee," he said in an interview in southern Pakse, while adding if the plantations now being cultivated were replanted with new trees yields would be double that of the current 600 kilograms per hectare.
1995 also saw a small production of arabica coffee of 230 tons, but that figure is expected to rise in the years to come as the ACE has started cultivation of some 900 hectares, expected ready for the first crop delivery by late 1998, said Nhouyvanisvong. He said that the rich and fertile red-basaltic soil of the Bolaven Plateau is producing "a very good, first-quality coffee". Since 1991 French and Australian agronomists have helped the Laotian government to get up a Research and Development Institute in the highlands under a program funded by the World Bank.
Andre Pilecki, agronomist research representative for the French International Centre for Cooperation in Agronomic Development Research (CIRAD), said he was "very optimistic" for the future development prospects for Laos. "There is a very good quality of coffee here but we need to introduce new technologies. The general aim is to improve plantation materials, cultivation technology and quality, which is a very, very important point." Coffee traders in the region generally describe the quality of Laos' coffee as good, but say it is not very suitable for blending other sorts of coffee worldwide, which is essential to establish any serious export industry.
Agriculture Minister Sisavath Keobounphan said in an interview last December that the development of export-oriented commodities was "one of the main polices" of Laos' socialist government and the government does therefore offer a tax-exemption on commodity exports. "Our government pays more and more attribution to coffee production," Keobounphan said. "For instance, the government has supporting policies for the growing of coffee. The government encourages the rehabilitation of old plantations and the growing of high-yield arabica coffee."
He said large areas remained uncultivated in Laos, with at least 40,000 hectares suitable for coffee growing just in the Bolaven Plateau, in addition to many thousands hectares in border areas with Vietnam and central Laos. "The amount of coffee production in Laos can be similar to Vietnam," the minister said, referring to Vietnam's booming coffee industry which is expected to produce at least 200,000 tons for the 1995/1996 crop year, compared to a production of only 20,000 in the mid-1980s.
While comparing Laos to Vietnam may sound impossible to some one Bangkok-based coffee trader believe it is realistic. "I think Laos has a huge potential. If they can organize technical advice, then in ten years' time they can produce at least 100,000 tons," said Nico van den Boogart of G. Premjee Ltd. The Indian-owned company trades 35,000 tons of coffee a year worldwide out of which 2,500 tons are from Laos, said van den Boogart. "If Vietnam can go from 20,000 tons to 200,000 tons in ten years, Laos should be able to go from 10,000 tons to 100,000 tons--that is realistic. I think there is a very good business there for Laos. Laos is about the same size as (western Africa's) Ivory Coast and Ivory Coast produces 300,000 tons of coffee a year," he said.
About 90 percent of Laos' coffee is exported to a number of European and Asian countries, the United States and Russia, out of which France is the biggest single importer, while the remainder is used for domestic consumption, said Nhouyvanisvong. ACE was established last July with the aim of boosting exports, while Laos in May 1995 joined the London-based International Coffee Organization as an observer.