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Sam Say


"The first rain of the year doesn’t only signal the end of the drought,it is the promise of an imminent harvest."

It is not enjoyable having to escape from your own country (Laos) at the age of 12 and then having to grow up in a country on the other side of the world (Canada). It is wonderful, though, to return to your country as a social entrepreneur, giving back what you have learned - in terms of intelligence, desire to do things, courage and success - from around the world. The real test for all of this is Bolaven Farms, a business that has reorganized the coffee supply chain to favor farmers and to respect the environment. The aroma of this story is hard to forget.


Sam Say was born in 1964 in Pakse, Laos. He was merely 10 years old when his family fled the country to escape a Stalinesque dictatorship (anyone found trying to cross the border was summarily executed). In 1979, after spending 2 years in a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand, Sam Say headed with his parents to Canada, where they were granted refugee status. They were welcomed and supported financially by a Mennonite community in Calgary, allowing them to start a new life. After studying in Canada, Sam Say headed to Hong Kong in search of work. In response to an ad he saw in the South China Morning Post, he started working for Nobel, an international brokerage company where he built himself a career dealing in steel and chemicals. After 12 years in the business, he had amassed a fair fortune. He chose to invest this money in his country of origin, Laos, in the organic coffee business. Coffee seeds are of a superior quality in those parts and, in the 1920s, Laos had an international reputation for coffee, with the climate and altitude making it the best place in the world for Arabic coffee... However, corruption, poor quality coffee and economic, cultural and social fragility had made farmers hostages of absurd supply chains that not only failed to bring wellbeing, but actually increased poverty and destroyed the environment. The Bolaven plateau lies in the south of the country. There, working with farming communities, explaining the reasons behind a new approach and providing the financial instruments needed to get started, Sam Say has created Bolaven Farms, an integrated production and marketing project that takes coffee from the field to the consumer. Every stage in growing and processing the coffee follows rigorous organic farming standards. Once he had gained the trust of a first group of farmers, Sam Say promised a premium after 5 years of commitment. Today, the model is working well, with the business having grown and become an extraordinary case study about how the fight against poverty and for environmental respect and the quality of raw materials can come together to create reciprocal benefits. The farmers of Bolaven Farms own the lots they work and, above all, they are people who have rediscovered the dignity of work, knowing they are part of social improvement for individuals and society. Sam Say says that, in this story, the coffee seeds were - and still are - the "seeds of hope".

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