11/17/2014 03:41 EST | Updated 01/17/2015 05:59 EST

Could Coffee in Myanmar Become a Social Enterprise?

As Director of Market Development, I have had many opportunities to travel the world and explore potential projects for the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA). Over the last few weeks I have been lucky enough to do just that in Shan State, Myanmar.

As Director of Market Development, I have had many opportunities to travel the world and explore potential projects for the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA). Over the last few weeks I have been lucky enough to do just that in Shan State, Myanmar.

On Wednesday morning, we were up at four and at the airport by five to catch our flight from Yangon to Mandalay. In addition to myself, "we" being:

- Romeo Cormier, our current volunteer in Myanmar, who has also worked for us in Rwanda;

- Cavelle Dove, one of the founders of the Yangon Bake House (YBH) -- (one of Myanmar's and perhaps Southeast Asia's coolest social enterprises) who somehow finds time to moonlight with CCA as a consultant (she just loves co-ops and Canadians, of whom she is one);

- Wai Yan, Director of Coffee for the YBH, building on the six years he worked for Costa Coffee in Dubai as an economic migrant, and has recently returned to Myanmar;

- Don Carter, spouse of a diplomat here, trained music teacher from K to grade 12, professional opera singer, all around great guy, and former director of training for a successful chain of coffee houses in Washington, DC; and

- Ngwe Tun, the catalyst of our visit, a remarkable, young Myanmar entrepreneur, founder of Genius Coffee (note that he also has another, full-time, job), and who hopes to be the purveyor of fine Myanmar coffee -- which for now is not saying much, but if Ngwe Tun has his way, that will change.

After a 75-minute flight due North to Mandalay, we piled into a minivan for a 4-hour drive southeast, up to 4,000 feet into the mountains of the Shan highlands. Enough room for one car on sinewy, beaten up roads, winding their way to Ywar Ngan, a bucolic village of about 3,000 people nestled in the mountains, where days are warm but evenings get down to 12 or 15 degrees.

Ninety per cent of the people in Ywar Ngan are agricultural producers -- think chillies, avocados, oranges, limes, gourds, mangoes, and chayote. Most farm on between one and four acres. Some have livestock, such as goats, cows, pigs, and massive, belching buffaloes. There are these tractor-like contraptions that people use or better yet, buffalo or cow drawn, wooden-wheeled, carts. There is little power, no cell phone coverage, no internet, and life seems relatively peaceful. Oh, and the crop with the biggest potential? Coffee.

Coffee was introduced in Myanmar over 100 years ago by missionaries. The Shan highlands are the perfect growing location: good soil, good drainage, good rain, right altitude, good shade and lots of other crops to fertilise the soil. Sometime in 2005 the regime began really pushing coffee, through a partnership with the Food and Agricultural Organisation. There has always been coffee around, but it has largely been of poor quality -- and there still is a large amount of poor quality coffee being produced throughout the highlands.

More is coming, apparently, as Chinese demand grows. After about 2006/7, many farmers received seeds from the government, and planted. Then little of much else: no training, no guidance, no technology. So they are growing and selling in the local market, but there is little sorting of picked coffee cherries, no differentiation of varieties, no mechanisation, no value added. There is not much of anything except farmers growing coffee in pristine locations, which according to Don, has the potential to make consumers of high quality coffee very, very happy.

Enter Ngwe Tun and Genius Coffee, established in late 2012. This is a social enterprise that seeks to take advantage of the potential offered by Myanmar's coffee growing areas. He's invested in one electronic de-huller, fermentation channels, a sorter, coffee seedlings, seedlings of shade trees, and storage. He's bought 20 acres of land for his own plantation, he will take the coffee produced but his employees can have anything else grown on the land.

He has a few acres here and there to do model farms. He gives 10 per cent of his profits back to the community. He's setting up a small eco-tourist lodge, as the landscape is stunning. But what he really wants is to help the producers organize and produce the quantity and quality he needs for a market in Yangon that is booming -- enter perhaps a social enterprise such as the Yangon Bake House -- and eventually for export. There are about 150 producers in this village already talking about forming a "cluster" (co-op is sometimes a four letter word in Myanmar) to at least sort the cherries initially before they go to market. He says another 200 farmers in a nearby village are considering doing the same. Enter CCA.

For the last two days we've walked through stunning, shaded coffee plantations. We've met with producers, waded barefoot through mountain streams and caked our feet with red mud. It has been nothing short of absolutely incredible. I never thought I'd get to Shan State, let alone with a group like this -- all in the name of trying to see if a co-op type business might fit in this situation.

Would a CCA project actually be able to help? Is a co-op inspired business the right fit for the area? And if "yes" to the million and one questions that go into project feasibility and design, can we actually get money for this?

It remains to be seen. What I do know is that we do not want to be another 4 L institution, which like cell phones, now abound in Myanmar -- look, listen, learn....and leave. I know there is work to be done. And I know there is potential. Now it is up to us to be part of it.

Written by Michael Wodzicki, Director of Market Development, Canadian Co-operative Association