When Mr. John M. Darch first encountered the Akha hill tribe of Doi Chang village in Thailand, the community was just eking out a living on subsistence agriculture. Rejected by Thai people because they originally emigrated from China, the Akha were isolated and living in poverty. The Doi Chaang Coffee Company, co-founded by Mr. Darch, tells the story of how, in the span of a decade, his partnership with the Akha people completely transformed the community.
In 2006, Mr. Darch was introduced to Wicha Promyong by a friend who thought that, given his international business acumen, Mr. Darch might be able to provide advice to Wicha, who was helping the Akha transition from growing opium to coffee. “My idea was, I’d be polite, maybe offer a donation, but he did the best sales job because he didn’t try to sell me,” says Mr. Darch. “He just explained the history, and his vision of having the farmers move from independently growing coffee beans to acting as a cooperative.”
Wicha had already made strides. Inspired by the cause, an agronomist from Chiang Mai University was also advising the Akha on her own time, teaching the farmers how to plant and harvest properly, eschewing the use of pesticides and fertilizers. They had bought a roaster, and opened up a Doi Chaang coffee shop in Bangkok. Mr. Darch was struck by the fact that Wicha was not asking for gifts or charity, but for insight into how he might be able to grow the enterprise internationally. “The Akha are not beggars,” Wicha insisted. He explained that companies have offered to invest, but they all wanted at least 51%. “The Akha came out of 200 years of slavery, and I am not going to put them back into it,” he declared.
Moved by Wicha’s story, Mr. Darch thought back to an important lesson taught by his mother, who raised five children to value honesty, hard work, and compassion. “My mother had a sign that hung outside our front door: ‘I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’ We were in a position where we could do something to help.”
Mr. Darch brought Doi Chaang beans back to Canada and had them sampled by experts, who were incredulous to learn that the coffee was from Thailand. It was found to be a high-grade Arabica that is now rated among the top 1% of coffees in the world. So, Mr. Darch brought his son Mr. John A. Darch, now the President & CEO of Doi Chaang Coffee, with him back to meet with Wicha. He presented the Akha with an extraordinary offer: the Akha could maintain full ownership of their current operations and receive 50% of the prospective roasting company that the Darchs would set up in Canada. The Darchs promised to pay a good price for beans imported to Canada in return for the rights to purchase up to 75% of their premium coffee beans and exclusive rights to them in North America and Europe. An agreement was made.
“This idea is not really endorsed by many in the coffee business because it means it will affect profitability,” Mr. Darch Sr. says. “But our ultimate goal was to create a sustainable community. If you actually want to elevate their lives to the point where these people are beyond just surviving – where they have money for clothing, children can go to school – you can’t do that on minimum wages.”
When Mr. Darch Jr. first visited the Doi Chang village, he thought he had gone back in time. There was very little running water, no electricity, and no sewer system. They stayed in a grass hut where, at night, the mice would come and stiff at their ears. “Now they have paved roads – what used to take six hours to get to the village now takes an hour-and-a-half,” explains Mr. Darch Jr. “There’s a medical facility, modern accommodations, banks, a gas station, grocery stores. There’s access to Internet, cell towers. In 10 years, it has completely transformed.”
Dozens of awards, a four-part series on Global TV, and ample media recognition have followed on the heels of this tremendous transformation. Today, Doi Chaang coffee is the only single-origin, 100% Arabica, USDA Certified Organic, Fair Trade Certified, shade grown Thai coffee available in North America and Europe. “As far as I know, we are the only people who truly have a direct relationship with the growing community,” says Mr. Darch Jr. “There’s a lot of direct trade, but we live and work there, and we go beyond what fair trade mandates. We pay significantly more. Instead of taking from them, we are working together. The model was shown to be successful, so now we have an opportunity to look at other communities in South America and Africa that we have the potential to have direct relationships with.”
Mr. Darch Sr. just celebrated his 30th anniversary as a member of Terminal City Club. In 1987, he followed the advice of a friend who suggested that he join the Club to be more connected to Vancouver’s business community. Mr. Darch Sr. quickly became a great supporter of the Club; he served on the Board of Directors for many years, and even helped the Club close the financing for the building we now call home. Mr. Darch Jr. originally joined the Club in 2003, but remembers visiting TCC when he was much younger. “My father used to take my brother and I here for Father and Son Billiards Night back in the 80s,” he says.
Reflecting on his achievements during his long career in banking, mining, and as a successful businessman, Mr. Darch Sr. says that he’s never started anything in order to chase financial gain. “I started projects because they were interesting,” he says. “If you see an opportunity, understand what it is first. If you’re prepared to make a strong commitment in time and effort, and you are transparent and honest in your approach, then you will have a chance to be successful.” Having also switched careers several times in his life, Mr. Darch Jr. suggests becoming friends with change. “Learn to adapt. If you can embrace change you can do anything because you won’t get stuck,” he says.
For the Darchs, the future remains bright. “Retiring is stepping away from something that you don’t want to do, but that you’ve had to do to earn money,” says Mr. Darch Sr. “So for me, I’ll just continue what I’m doing.” ■
Doi Chaang drip coffee can be enjoyed in 1892 and Cuvée. Interested in learning more? Critically-acclaimed author Mark Pendergrast captures the Doi Chaang story in full in Beyond Fair Trade (2015).
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