sustainable responsible travel and voluntourism in thailand with akha ama coffee

The Coffee Journey to the Village of Maejantai, Thailand: By Shannon O’Donnell

I never consciously chose to become an advocate for responsible travel. In my early years on the road, it seemed just as likely that I would advocate for volunteerism. But as the years bled into each other, eight at last count, I have come to understand that we have a skewed modern narrative about travel. We portray travel as equal parts transformative for the traveler and impactful on the destination. We talk as though it’s a given that our work in developing communities is a good thing. Travel, service and social entrepreneurship have many positive aspects. But even so, the narrative around these three topics needs rewiring. The tone we take in our work makes a difference. Our attitude has a profound impact on the people and places we meet in our work as social entrepreneurs.

During my first weeks in Thailand, I met a fellow expat for coffee at a cute café tucked into a backroad of an up-and-coming neighborhood. The owner of Akha Ama was a charming, twenty-something Thai man named Lee. In my early visits, I knew little about his business model. I only knew that he wanted to create a fair trade coffee pipeline from his Akha hill tribe village to the touristy city of Chiang Mai. Over the next two years, I would see both sides of the pipeline. I sipped brewed coffee on artfully weathered tabletops and later plucked coffee cherries from the mountains of Northern Thailand.

Lee’s coffee shop became my favorite spot in the city. It had a good mix of locals and fellow expats, paired with a rich, flavorful coffee that I had come to love. With each visit, I could see Akha Ama’s rapid growth. Lee had a clear vision for the coffee shop, and he put in countless hours working toward it. That year, he held the first annual Coffee Journey. His idea was that a small group of Thais and expats would spend a weekend in his family’s village, Maejantai. Intrigued, I signed up. For three days, we learned each part of the complicated process of growing and picking coffee. In the evenings, we learned about the meticulous care that had gone into Akha Ama’s business model. Working as a coffee collective, the villagers could set fair rates and standards. Together, they created a way to improve their quality of life.

Changes over the past several decades have moved Lee’s village from a barter system to cash. Thailand’s compulsory education law mandated school attendance for all children, and while the country’s hill tribes welcomed the chance to give their children an education, villagers struggled to pay even modest school fees. Beyond education, demand for conveniences like cell phones also necessitated the move toward a money-based system. Without a strong local economy, the farmers had long struggled to provide local opportunities for the young adults in their community. Now, Akha Ama sustains the families of Maejantai with a steady stream of cash revenue and new employment alternatives.

In the days after we returned to Chiang Mai from the Coffee Journey, I felt a slow and subtle shift in my perception of the traveler’s role in responsible tourism. It’s trendy to use the term “fair trade” in marketing materials on our grocery store shelves. But that doesn’t mask the truth behind the need for awareness. The Coffee Journey is a story that could compel consumers to learn about the human faces behind a cup o’ joe. By coming to know the people behind Akha Ama’s coffee, I realized the impact of my spending choices.  But Akha Ama taught me more than a lesson in purchasing habits. It made me look at my role as a traveler, an advocate for the communities I’ve visited, and a social entrepreneur.

sustainable responsible travel and voluntourism in thailand with akha ama coffee
The Coffee Journey to Maejantai had altered my understanding of responsible tourism. Lee is the face of a carefully crafted business model, as nuanced as anything taught in a graduate school classroom. Lee’s collective created a strong social enterprise using tourism to impact its community. Even more remarkably, the community has set the terms of that impact. The community has developed a business to preserve its culture and traditions, and also achieve its own goals.

The mental shift needed is minor, but the difference is manifold. Redefining our roles and moving away from the label of “changemakers” allows travelers to better support the communities our presence impacts. Most often, being of service means understanding our function as the learner. These communities don’t often lack the ideas; they lack the resources. They have the intricate cultural knowledge to create a business sympathetic with their development goals. We have the ability to support and lift those voices.

For social entrepreneurs, impact best comes through taking an attitude of learning, service, and curiosity. It’s only by creating deep connections that we can support the communicated needs and goals of our communities.

sustainable responsible travel and voluntourism in thailand with akha ama coffee
Textbooks and development models often miss the delicate nuances of culture brushing against culture, and gloss over the messy work of integrating real people and communities into empowering, at-scale businesses. Businesses with underlying social missions run in every corner of the world and support a gamut of causes and issues. These social enterprises are in the trenches every day figuring out what a modern responsible business model looks like when paired with a growing and thriving, multitrillion-dollar international tourism industry. It’s our job to serve those visionary leaders. It’s our job to see their ideas and offer them the support they ask for, not the support we think they need.

Even more, our role is about having the hard conversations and accepting the answers. Lee has no need for me to change his business, his model, or his community. What Lee needs is travelers, entrepreneurs included, to accept that sometimes buying a cup o’ joe is the best way to be of service.

sustainable responsible travel and voluntourism in thailand with akha ama coffee
That Coffee Journey offered me a chance to see Akha Ama’s vision and support it. In every community, in every new social enterprise I’ve visited — from projects with the Maasai of Kenya to cacao farmers in Panama — there were elements we can view only as outsiders. In my early years of travel, my brain categorized the areas for improvement at every moment. I have worked with many social entrepreneurs taking that same approach. Sometimes we visit and immediately want to project our ideas onto them. But those “areas for improvement” came from our personal lens on the world. Each judgement stems from a scaffolding list of priorities born from our culture and upbringing. They don’t represent reality; they represent our own perceptions. When I abandoned those ideas and shifted my focus toward support — toward being of service — I changed my capacity for impact.

Visionary leaders often have a clear roadmap for what success means in their communities. That might not mean running water or functioning solar panels. In fact, it often means neither of those things. Instead, every project we encounter — and every quirky nuance within it — highlights a fascinating chain of decisions. Local entrepreneurs design and implement the programs they feel best meet their community’s needs. As social entrepreneurs, travelers and volunteers, the attitude we bring along with us impacts our experiences and perceptions. In many places, the most profound way to be of service is through supporting another’s goal. It means buying a cup of coffee, taking the local tour and supporting the local entrepreneur’s vision of how this project should run. In many places, the most profound need is the willingness to believe that each community has a better grasp on which projects best impact its future.

sustainable responsible travel and voluntourism in thailand with akha ama coffeeAbout Shannon:
Shannon O’Donnell is a full-time traveler, speaker and writer who shares the message of service-based travel and global citizenship. She has authored the book The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and is the founder of Grassroots Volunteering, a website that helps travelers connect directly with social projects around the world. Y




Travel Tip: How to Experience the Coffee Journey with Akha Ama

Akha Ama still runs coffee journey’s regularly! Email for more information. The next one is scheduled for November 25-27, 2016. Make sure to follow along on their Facebook page as well for announcements on future Coffee Journey dates. And, don’t forget to stop in the Akha Ama coffee shop when you pass through Chiang Mai. Directions are here.


This article originally appeared on Rank & File – a digital publication designed for purpose-driven entrepreneurs seeking to make a positive impact. Rank & File believes people are worth serving and business can create change. Get a free issue at

Feature photo courtesy of Akha Ama; all other photos courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell and ©A Little Adrift 



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