During Vietnam’s sensational growth to become the world’s second largest coffee grower in the world after Brazil, a number of personalities have been named Vietnam’s “King of Coffee” or been given similar attributes for their contribution to the growth. But few other persons deserves the world’s recognition like Doan Trieu Nhan, the chief architect behind Vietnam’s famous “Coffee Development Plan” who eyed the potential for coffee growth years before the war with the U.S. ended. In Part 4 of this special series for the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal about Vietnam, and in this exclusive interview, we will meet Vietnam’s “Mr Coffee” who undisputedly is the core reason for Vietnam’s ascend to fame in coffee. Read on and hear the story behind from Mr Nhan himself.
BY MAJA WALLENGREN
He has spent close to half a century in coffee and growing up in northern Vietnam, Doan Trieu Nhan has lived through more multi-faceted sides of the coffee industry than most; From surviving the bombing raids under the war to dreaming of a unified Vietnam, from socialist-based barter trade to the shock entry to the free market in the early 1990s when the International Coffee Agreement of minimum prices and quotas collapsed and overnight launched Vietnam’s entry to the world market.
And even after a life full of accomplishments, at 82 years of age modesty is still the number one trait for Nhan, the man who designed the “Coffee Development Plan” that would take Vietnam to become a giant in coffee and help rebuild a nation to newfound prosperity.
“It makes me very happy to see how the coffee growers have been able to improve their lives,” Nhan said humbly when he last spoke to Tea & Coffee. “My effort has not really been that significant, I just did my job, and it’s the hard work of the Vietnamese coffee farmers that should be recognized.” History, however, tells a different story of the contribution by Nhan whose importance is hard to deny.
Foreign or local visitors alike, Nhan has always welcomed everybody to his simple office in Hanoi at the headquarters of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association, Vicofa, where he served as Chairman for almost two decades before stepping down at the age of 78 in 2006. He still has an office here and regularly receives guests from across the world eager to get a glimpse of the “man behind” – who for years has been known simply as “Mr. Coffee” in the Asian region.
From his early student days Nhan was committed to do his part to help rebuild the country and so in 1967, years before the final Battle of Khe Sahn, Nhan received a scholar ship to go to southern China and study for a Masters in agricultural engineering.
“Development of coffee as a large cash crop was always primarily about social development. We couldn’t rely on anyone else to come and help us rebuild the country and we had over 70 different ethnic tribes living in regions with very poor development that we had to think of how to integrate and help bring better opportunities,” said Nhan.
The initial target was set for Vietnam to produce between 6 and 7 million 60-kilogram bags, to compete with Indonesia, the largest producer in the Asia region and the 3rd largest overall at the time. While Indonesia had access to the export quotas of the Cold War-era politics at the time, Vietnam did not and the production target was carefully calculated according to the demand in socialist allies which could be exchanged in barter trade for industrial products. After the war ended in 1975, the first Nhan did was travel to the region in southern Vietnam known as the “Central Highlands” where further studies were done and plans to initiate coffee plantings were started. By the mid-1980’s the government expanded its coffee plans to also target arabica coffee, but this time specifically trying to address the issues of poverty in the northern-most remote provinces which have a high concentration of ethnic minorities.
“We started growing arabica coffee in Son La in 1989 and when you look at the lives of the people in the area today, and how their livelihood has improved significantly thanks to coffee, it makes me very happy,” he said. “In Son La, farmers in Chieng Ban commune are Thai minority people who now grow more than 1,000 hectares, and with the money from the last few crops they have been able to build new houses and buy new motorbikes,” said Nhan.
It’s hard to argue against the Vietnamese decision on using coffee as a tool toward greater social development. As of 2012 over 1 million people were working in coffee production, either as farmers or workers, and that combined with the related direct and indirect activities have resulted in coffee earnings providing the livelihood of at least 3 million Vietnamese. The inspiration coffee has given the nation as a whole has led to similar booms of other agricultural crops such as black pepper, cotton and cocoa. Every visit to remote coffee growing areas located in regions dominated by ethnic minorities shows signs of new development, as the communities gradually has been connected to the national networks of electricity, running water and better infrastructure.
“During the years of the coffee crisis there was a lot of international pressure …”
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Maja Wallengren first visited Vietnam in 1993 and had written about all aspects of the Vietnamese rise in coffee since then through 17 trips across the South-East Asian grower. Here she is interviewing Mr Nhan during one of her frequent visits to Vietnam’s coffee growing regions.
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