In this Icon NOW interview, Lee Ayu Chuepa talks about the humble motivations of award-winning Akha Ama coffee, pursuing formal education as a member of the Akha tribe, and how Akha Ama continues to empower local ethnic communities in Thailand.
When speaking of coffee, countries like Brazil and Italy come to mind for many. Only in the past decade, as café culture began booming, has Thailand and pioneers like Akha Ama Coffee appeared on the world stage. Appearing in the likes of BBC Travel and the Wall Street Journal, the roots of Akha Ama’s award-winning beans and brew can be traced back to a remote village in northern Thailand, where its founder Lee Ayu Chuepa, 36, was born and raised.
“I chose coffee not because I loved to drink it, but because of the value it brings to the community,” Lee says.
It wasn’t until his teen years when Lee had a taste of one of the most beloved caffeinated drinks in the world—in the form of a can of sugary, milky beverage from a convenience store.
Though he had grown up seeing coffee trees around, he had only picked and tasted its sweet cherries. Coffee didn’t stand out to him any more than the other plants he had learned to grow on the farm and forage in the forest. Whether it was apricots, plums, peaches, persimmons, or various vegetables and rice, the Maejantai village that Lee calls home had it all—made possible by the ingenious, traditional agricultural practices of the ethnic Akha people who live there.
Living off the land with only their survival skills, the Akha are highly self-reliant. However, the village’s self-sufficiency was not only customary but required, due to their statelessness.
Having migrated from the southwest of China, Lee’s parents had lived most of their lives in Thailand without full citizenship. For them and many other local ethnic communities, travel outside the village was difficult and access to essential services like healthcare was also extremely limited.
“It took 15 years to get my ID card,” Lee says. “That day, I felt like I could truly be free.”
Though formal education was often unaffordable and inaccessible for many Akha families, Lee ventured outside his village to learn more. He found his way to attend a temple school where it was free, and there, through textbooks, he saw illustrations of things he’d never seen before at the village.
“Cars, airplanes, and trains… People talked about the giant buildings in Bangkok, overseas in Europe, and Africa,” Lee recalls. “That first day, I was shocked.”
From there, his curiosity pushed him further to pursue higher education. Despite pushback from his community, he went on to search for scholarships. And despite all doubts and discrimination, he proved his ability and eventually enrolled in a university in Chiang Mai, majoring in English.