Interview with Lee Ayu

Interview with Mr Lee Ayu, co-founder of Akha Ama Coffee and proprietor of the Akha Ama Cafe.

Q. When was your first cup of coffee?
A. I was at university in Chiang Rai, and it was canned coffee. I bought it at the 7-11 and I thought: caffeine! sweet! milky! After that it was powdered packets for the next few years.
Then one day I decided to go to a popular coffee chain to see what the talk was all about. I chose the first item on the menu because the menu was so overwhelming! I sat down and received a big tissue and a small cup. It tasted bitter but I went back again just to confirm my first experience. I ordered the same thing and this time the man who was seated behind me started to complain: Why is this so expensive? Why is the cup so small? And that is how I realized that I wasn’t the only one ignorant about coffee!

Q. Why should we drink Akha Ama Coffee?
A. It’s good quality World Champion coffee. We help local farmers and villagers who work in harmony with the environment. There are health benefits too, especially because it is organically grown.

Q. How did you get started?
A. I was privileged to be the only person from my village to go to university, and I felt guilty that others did not have this opportunity. So I knew I should do something. I majored in English and then after graduation I worked with Child’s Dream, an NGO based in Chiang Mai. It was there that I learned about community development.
So I started to think about what my own village had to offer? What is an international product? What is long lasting? Coffee, I realized, is a stable commodity and my village was already growing it. But the problem was that we received very little benefit from it.  We had knowledge but we were not business savvy.

Q. What is the biggest mistake normal coffee drinkers make?
A. Following trends. They are not drinking coffee because of the coffee but because of the brand.

Q. How has Akha Ama Coffee changed you and your village?
A. The farmers have more courage to produce consistent quality coffee. There is a market for our coffee! And for a better price too! For example, there has also been opportunity to develop an improved quality process through education. They are learning what the customer wants. This has produced more knowledge about demand and value.
For me, my passion and motivation has helped improve the quality of life in the village. The more I can help the happier I am. This means the most to me.

Q. What has been the most challenging aspect so far? And the most rewarding?
A. Acquiring knowledge and skills has been the most difficult part of the process so far. I have a non-profit background. Marketing, meeting people, budgeting and finances have all been necessary for me to quickly learn. We are at the nursery level.
On the other hand, acceptance at the international level has been the most rewarding surprise of the journey thus far. I applied to the Speciality Coffee of Europe with no expectations but 2 weeks later we received the letter stating: “Dear Mr. Lee, Your coffee has been selected to be one of the 21 coffees at the World Cup Tasters Championship in London.” I was very confused that I had misunderstood the letter so I read it over twenty times. Then I decided to send a confirmation email and it wasn’t until they confirmed the letter that I started screaming.
People were probably wondering what is going on in that new coffee shop downstairs? Then my biggest concern was how was I going to send 5kilos of coffee for the World Cup? I used a private postage service and when we were selected the following year, well, I was again surprised.