The Journey of Coffee Soap’s Young Entrepreneurs

Bounyouang Oudomphone

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This story was written by a participant of Oxfam’s Mekong Youth Engagement and Storytelling Workshop. Each story provides a local perspective on some of the broader work we do to support communities, including natural resource management, saving for change, women and youth empowerment and bringing communities together.

Most young Laos entrepreneurs don’t see the appeal of farming in their country.

The work is extremely labor-intensive, competition from neighboring countries make it challenging for young people to start and develop their businesses and there are severe limits on government policies to help them.

Most of the time, young farmers are encouraged by their families to find new jobs in the business or public sector and like many in Southeast Asia, young Laotians are flocking to towns and cities to fulfill these dreams, leaving the farmlands behind.

Phonvilay Silaphet, or Ting, 23, grew up on her parent’s coffee farm in Paksong district, Champasak province, in Southern Laos and used to help her parents on the farm when she was a teenager.

She moved to study finance and accounting at university, thinking an easier life would await her, but found herself struggling to find work due to strong competition where people would often bribe their way into positions.

“Why don’t I go back home to work on the coffee farm with my parents,” she thought, returning to work with them for three years.

During that time, Ting noticed a lot of the coffee was wasted each day and came up with the idea to turn the waste into a body scrub.

She later joined The Laos Farmer Network to help support her work.

Ting, using coffee beans to create natural body scrub.

In January, 2018, Ting attended the ASEAN Cooperative Business forum in the Philippines, where she was able to showcase her products.

She was struck by how few young Lao farmers were present at the forum and decided to establish a young farmers group to help develop business ideas including transforming coffee into new products, just like she did.

Ting was able to convince 15 youths to join and submitted her plan to the Laos Farm Network, which was quickly approved.

On February 1st 2018, JHAI Coffee Youth Soap Group was established, with the Farmer Network supporting the startup with funding and training on soap and scrub production.

While the group has faced challenges, with members leaving to produce soap independently at a lower price, and the expense of producing soap meaning they will have to find other products to sell, Ting and the group are finding ways to address these challenges.

Ting is optimistic about the JHAI Coffee Soap Youth Group and knows she and her team has a lot to learn about managing a business.

But she believes she will have the opportunity to develop and make the group successful in the future.

“Even though working as a group is less profitable than working alone, I prefer it in order to have people with me who share the same goal and help each other to solve problems and challenges together,” Ting said.

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