Fancy a cup of coffee from Pakse?
Pinphet Phongsouli not only made drip coffee popular in her hometown of Pakse, but is also a café owner, the first Lao woman to be certified as Q grader, and a Robusta and Arabica coffee producer.
At just 26 years of age, Pinphet Phongsouli has already achieved what others wait their whole lives for: she is living her dream!
It all started with selling fruit juices and shakes from a small cart in front of her house in Pakse, the second most populated city in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Pinphet had always dreamed of owning a successful business but was pushed to do this when her father passed away and she had to support her mother and younger sister. Working during the week, she spent the weekends studying for a Bachelor’s in marketing at the Thai border city of Ubon Ratchathani.
The little kiosk became so popular, that the young graduate seized the momentum and opened her own store. With her mother’s co-investment and using the profits of her sales, in 2020 at the age of 24 Pinphet became the manager of her small family business, Toped Café.
“When I started my juice bar, I only offered one menu. I am very proud of how far I have come.”
After some time Pinphet realized that Pakse had turned into a vibrant coffee scene, and she needed to add coffee to the menu if business was to keep up.
Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. In 2020/2021, over 166.6 million 60kg bags of coffee were consumed worldwide, a slight increase from 164 million bags in the previous year.
In Lao PDR, the coffee industry has great potential, being the main cash crop for many small-scale farmers. Indeed, according to data of the International Trade Centre coffee accounts for the country’s third-largest agricultural export product, exported to more than 26 countries in Asia, Europe and North America.
After a year of selling coffee, the life of the café owner changed: an acquaintance introduced Pinphet to pour-over coffee (or drip coffee). Once she tasted it, she knew she had found a new passion.
Already at a young age, Pinphet liked to experiment in the kitchen. Her shop became her laboratory. Equipped with new coffee machinery, Pinphet set out to learn as much as she could about the dripping method, turning her shop into a laboratory.
She tried out various specialty coffee beans from the fertile Bolaven Plateau, which spreads across all four southern provinces in Lao PDR and is famous for its cool climate, dramatic waterfalls and high-grade coffee.
It was then that she saw an announcement for a competition in Savannakhet Province, close to Pakse. With only two weeks to go Pinphet practiced her dripping method day and night, thereby connecting virtually with her mentor, a professional barista. The hard work paid off: Pinphet won third place.
“This moment was crucial to me. The competition motivated me to learn fast and achieve something. It was incredible to win an award.”
The key ingredient in coffee of course is the coffee cherry, or later the green bean. The young barista started working directly with the farmers on the Bolaven Plateau to learn more about the seed-to-cup process, which includes cultivation, harvesting, processing, drying, shipping, storage and delivery.
One of the farmers she met is part of the Lao Coffee Lovers group, which is connected to the International Trade Centre. The farmer encouraged Pinphet to apply for a sensory and cupping skill workshop.
However, costs were high and space limited. Even though she could not officially participate, the young barista had the chance to participate as an observer through the entire course. The trainers were so impressed that they offered her a scholarship in exchange for volunteering in the next courses.
“I helped with the cupping in Pakse and Vientiane, while the trainers were connected virtually from Thailand.”
The scholarship enabled her to pass the exams of the Specialty Coffee Association. With her newly gained certification in hand, Pinphet decided to intensify her work with the farmers.
Being the only woman Q grader in Lao PDR for Robusta coffee, her new skills were to help provide the quality that she needed to meet her customers’ expectations.
Partnering with the farmers of the Nambeng Coffee Group, the coffee shop owner submitted her green beans to the second Lao Green Coffee Competition, in April of 2022. Coffee from the Bolaven Plateau was in high demand by international processors, and Nambeng Coffee Group shone by winning two awards.
Despite it being their first year in the competition, the group scored 85 points and were thus qualified to submit their beans to Lao PRD's first ever coffee auction, Taste of Laos. Their coffee beans were sold at $22.4/kg.
After this success, Pinphet was confident enough to start selling the beans at the café and online. Her client base is domestic and small, but her stock always sold out.
“I would love to open a second shop focusing only on specialty coffee, but also imported beans. People could try differently brewed coffees and compare a variety of beans.”
A dream that will hopefully soon become reality for the entrepreneur.
Pinphet is a beneficiary of the International Trade Centre’s European Union-funded ARISE Plus Lao PDR project, participating in its training ‘Special Coffee Association’s Sensory Skills and Green Coffee’ in both Foundation and Intermediate levels. The training has helped her collaborate with local farmers for better coffee quality.