History

Lao coffee has 100 years of history. Its international reputation was built on high-quality washed arabica from Bourbon and Typica varieties (1920-1950). Between 1950 and 1990, due to external factors (war, diseases) arabica was progressively replaced by C. canephora (robusta) Since 1990, there is a policy of reintroduction of arabica using a highproductive dwarf-variety with a slight but progressive adoption of the wet-method. Robusta still represents the vast majority of production.lca09s

The beginnings of coffee in Laos (1920-1950)

The first coffee plantations in the Bolaven Plateau were set up around 1920 by French settlers alongside the roads built by the colonial administration. Coffee rapidly became the main crop in the area, especially after the construction of a research center near Paksong in 1930 (Ban Lak 42). At that time, settlers grew exclusively arabica trees of Bourbon and Typica varieties. Within a few years, native farmers living near colonial plantations started to grow coffee in small gardens, and later in real coffee plantations from 1940. At its height, coffee surfaces in the Bolaven reached 5,000 ha. At that time coffee was entirely processed following the wet method and all technical steps (pulping, fermenting, washing, etc.) were made manually. The coffee obtained was then mainly exported to France with a very high-quality image.

War and coffee sector deliquescence (1950-1975)

From 1950 onwards, several external factors triggered a disorganization of coffee sector in Laos. First, there was a progressive dismantlement of coffee marketing network, downstream with the Second World War and upstream when main planters, investors and traders fled the area because of the recurrent conflicts. In the same time, colonial arabica plantations were being severely damaged by recurrent frosts and more particularly by leaf rust disease attacks. The first consequence was the progressive abandonment of coffee plantations by native farmers who had to focus on food crops. The second consequence was the progressive replacement of Coffea arabica Typica trees with newly introduced species resistant to leaf rust, mainly Coffea canephora (commonly called robusta) and in a lesser extent Coffea liberica. In a context of war and production deliquescence these new species had many advantages: not only they required less workforce and allowed higher yields, but the time and workforce required for coffee harvesting and processing was also reduced as C. canephora is processed with the dry method with very little care of cherries’ quality during and after the harvest.

The preeminence of robusta in a state-controlled coffee sector (1975-1990)

After 1975 and the end of the war, native farmers as well as new settlers from the lowlands started to reoccupy the abandoned lands in the Boloven Plateau. In the same time, new authorities set a collectivization program that included the creation of coffee production and trading cooperatives (Sallée, 2007); as a result, the coffee sector became State-controlled: collection, trading, exporting as well as prices’ policies were controlled by national authorities with a view of high-production and little care of coffee quality. This system didn’t allow great profitability. During this period, coffee export benefits were mainly used to reimburse the Comecom debt with former socialist countries. Under this marketing system the price of Lao coffee resulted from a bilateral negotiation and didn’t reflect the state of international markets (Matsushima, 2004). This production directed policy triggered a drop in coffee quality as farmers took less care of their plantations and simplified harvest and post-harvest practices (focusing on coffee volumes to the detriment of quality).

Market liberalization and the resurgence of arabica (1990-2007)

In the late 80’s, under the New Economic Mechanism regime (NEM), coffee sector was progressively liberalized and private operators could finally enter it (Matsushima, 2004). The convergence of different situations such as a new economic conjuncture, a dramatic rise of coffee prices in 1994 due to frosts in Brazil and the devaluation of Lao Kip in comparison with the dollar in 1997 following the Asian crisis triggered a spectacular development of coffee export sector. Indeed, despite a period of depletion in international coffee prices between 1998 and 2003, the advantageous currency exchange rate policy allowed to keep coffee sector profitability. As a consequence, Lao coffee exports steadily increased during this whole period.

Source: Lao coffee supply chain analysis – Groupe de Travail Café (GTC),