Ask the next five people you meet to name, off the top of their heads, the world’s top 5 coffee exporters: bet you anything nobody mentions Vietnam.
Yet there it is, sitting pretty at number two, on the back of an enormous boom that has gone under the radar because it’s focused on cheaper, hardier robusta beans rather than the fancier arabica stuff you’ll see marketed in foufy coffeeshops worldwide.
What’s remarkable is that Vietnam’s coffee export boom isn’t a plantation-based affair. It’s a smallholder boom, with average coffee-farms in the 2-3 acre (1-1.5 hectare) range.
Talk about dynamism in smallholder agriculture can sound fluffy – like just the kind of kumbaya-discourse Boring Development is allergic to. But, in Vietnam, fast rising rural incomes have been a key under-reported feature of fast growth.
The impact on livelihoods has been profound. It’s hard to get recent numbers, but from 1993 to 1998, the poorest fifth of Vietnam’s rural households saw their real incomes rise by 46%, and more than two-thirds of that gain came from increasing cash-crop production, nearly all of it coffee.
So sneer all you want at Nescafé; the market for crappy instanc coffee has enormously raised incomes for hundreds of thousands of rural families in Vietnam, all without any need for any NGO, aid initiative or celebrity ambassador.
In fact, smallholders in Vietnam’s coffee sector have seen their productivity grow so fast, the problem these days is a supply-glut that has seen some farmers hold much of their 2013 harvest back:
“I still have some coffee left from the old crop but I don’t want to sell,” said Nguyen Van Tap, a farmer who owns about 2.5 acres (1 hectare) in Dak Lak province, which supplies 30 percent of the country’s harvest. “Prices aren’t good and I don’t need the money right now.”
Anyone working on African smallholder agriculture will have had his mind blown by that. I mean, imagine: a guy farming 1 Ha. with the financial resources to wait for better prices before rushing to market. That’s is development right there.
Are there sustainability concerns arising from Vietnam’s coffee boom? Of course there are. But those are concerns that face farmers who have the income to face up to them, and who have enough to lose to have powerful incentives to avoid self-defeating practices. The real, first and sine qua non requirement for sustainable agriculture is having an activity worth sustaining in the first place. Vietnamese coffee farmers very definitely have that, and so are able to invest in the kinds of knowledge-intensive biotech efforts that most African smallholders can only dream of. .
Talk about dynamism in smallholder agriculture can sound fairly fluffy – like just the kind of kumbaya-discourse Boring Development is allergic too. Partly that’s because it’s hard for people to call up a mental picture of how rural economic dynamism fits into an overall development strategy. But in Vietnam (as in South Korea and Taiwan 50 years earlier) fast rising rural incomes fueled by strong productivity gains among smallholder farmers have been a key, under-reported feature of the growth experience, helping create a counterpull that moderates trends towards fast urbanization.
Empowered coffee farmers don’t need to stampede for the cities. They don’t create unmanageable slums. If they do go work in town, they do so out of choice, not utter desperation. That’s balanced development. And it starts with a dynamic, productive smallholder farmer class.