Story and video – Clara Wong, Jesse Pizarro, Sun Chhorvy, Pham Thuy Ngan
On first impression, Lee Ayu Chuepa, 26, looks like any new generation upper-middle class Thai: easy-demeanoured, stylishly influenced by Western culture (Converse sneakers, ‘Born to be Wild’ T-shirt, floppy Beatles-style hair) and speaking English with a lilting Thai accent. Lee is also the owner of a quaint laidback café located in downtown Chiang Mai, where we first met him.
The only difference is that Lee is of no privileged breed, at least not in the typical sense. Lee is a descendant of the indigeneous Akha hill tribe. There are currently only about 40,000 members in Thailand, spread out in small villages amongst the mountainous regions of Northern Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
The Akha people are known for their skill and knowledge of subsistence farming, which has been passed down from generation to generation. The Akha people are known for growing crops like vegetables, fruits and coffee, and have been self-sustaining until recent years, where the surge of modernization and captalism has pitted them against modern agricultural farming, forcing them to produce cash crops for survival. The introduction of chemical fertilizers, although increasing the speed and amount of crops harvested as compared to the usage of natural fertilizers, makes the soil vulnerable to being unusable in a short period of time, therefore shortening the production capabilities of the Akha community.
This is where Lee decided to step in. Although chided constantly by the villagers for constantly pursuing higher education (Lee is the first person in his tribe to complete University, which he did under a scholarship at the Chiang Rai Rajabhat University), Lee knew that the fatalistic mentality was due to a lack of education, and was determined to break out of the mould. But Lee did it out of the love for his people.
He forced himself to master the English language (which he candidly admitted to us, was torturous in the beginning) because he knew it would be useful when communicating with the international community. Lee also halved his undergraduate studies by completing it in two years, while interning at the international children’s organization Child’s Dream, which had an office located in Chiang Mai. It was at Child’s Dream that he learnt the skills needed to run a non-profit organization (NGO), and also when the idea of starting a fair trade café using coffee beans harvested by the Akha people started to form.
Lee told us of the difficulties he faced in the beginning. Although he had a firm knowledge of the local customs of the Akha people and had the means of communicating with them, he lacked much of the crucial business skills needed to run his own café. Luckily, with the help of the friends and contacts he made at Child’s Dream, he managed to gather enough resources and funding from various NGOS to kick start his venture.
Akha Ama first opened its doors a year ago on the 29th of March 2010. With a firm stance on upholding the quality of the coffee beans, within the first year the Akha Ama brand of coffee beans was selected for tasting in Europe by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe. Akha Ama has also attracted a growing fanbase within the international community, mostly through word-of-mouth from backpackers and tourists who have patronised his café.
Although Lee has grand dreams of expanding his coffee venture in the future, he emphasized that it must only be done for the benefit of the Akha community. He said that seeing the Akha community learning new sustainable ways of farming, and families involved in the coffee harvesting being able to send their kids to school, gives him much satisfaction. He hopes that one day his beloved Akha people can be self-sustainable again and freed from the harmful effects of modernization.
Throughout our interview, Lee constantly repeated how lucky he feels for the goodwill he has received throughout his life. He expressed hopes for more youths to step up and help their community, or any community in general, and to always remember to give back to society.