Starbucks initiative boosts Baptist work in Thailand

The company’s policy of giving back to communities that grow its products is aiding an American Baptist couple’s 25-year mission to improve lives in rural Thailand.

By Bob Allen

An American Baptist missionary couple’s 25-year work to improve life among the hill tribes of Northern Thailand got a major boost when Seattle-based Starbucks opened its first Community Store outside the United States last May in Bangkok.

mike and becky mannStarbucks pledged 10 percent of sales at the Langsuan store in affluent central Bangkok to farming communities in Northern Thailand, where Mike and Becky Mann lead the Integrated Tribal Development Program they founded in 1990.

The couple based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, first started work in 1989 to improve the lives of indigenous people through ministries like Becky’s work with women and Mike’s focus on rural development programs of water and agriculture.

When farmers started growing coffee and needed a place to sell it, the ministry launched the first fair trade co-op in Thailand and Lanna Coffee, sold through Lanna Cafe in Thailand and international markets including Starbucks, Unicafe and Bon Cafe.

Starbucks uses beans from northern Thailand in a blend called Muan Jai — which means “wholehearted happiness” in the local language — and reinvests 5 percent of Thai sales back to local coffee-farming communities.

The largest chain of coffee houses in the world, Starbucks began its Community Stores program — which supports revitalization efforts to address education, health, housing and employment issues in the neighborhoods the company serves — with two stores in Harlem, New York, and the Crenshaw community of Los Angeles in October 2011. Other stores followed in Houston and Seattle. The goal is to open 50 such stores around the world by 2018.

Each Community Store works directly with a nonprofit that offers services aimed at meeting the needs of that individual community. In Thailand, it’s the Integrated Tribal Development Program, which is promised 10 percent of sales from the Langsuan Community Store.

Starbucks says funds generated by the store will first be used to build a learning center in the Mae KheeMukNoi and Kong Kai villages and later to support sustainable education, health and irrigation projects.

“The community store in Langsuan signifies our ongoing commitment to give back to communities and, more specifically, to support and sustain local coffee and farming communities in Northern Thailand,” said Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

The Manns say production from the Thai Tribal Arabica Coffee Production and Marketing Cooperative grew from 3 tons to 200 tons in the first 10 years, and Starbucks was a major buyer. That’s paid off in significant improvement to things like better access to health care and education, improved water resources and sanitation and economic stability.

“Starbucks’ commitment to these communities has already made an enormous difference, with several thousands of people benefiting through improved water access, local medical clinics and schools,” said Mike Mann, global consultant for rural development for American Baptists’ International Ministries since 2004.

“Many communities now are starting to thrive, but there is still a lot of work to do,” Mann said. “I am very excited that the new community store at Langsuan coffee will be part of that progress — giving hope and a better future to thousands of hill tribe communities, who in return will continue to grow high-quality coffee.”

— With reporting by American Baptist News Service.