A farmer takes care of coffee plants. — VNS Photo
The Coffee House has already opened 100 stores in Việt Nam, the fastest growth rate among all coffee chains. Its founder, Nguyễn Hải Ninh, was included on the list of 30 under 30 by Forbes in 2017. When he started the business, Ninh dreamed of taking Vietnamese coffee to the global market and supporting local coffee farmers. Việt Nam News correspondent Thu Ngân asks Ninh about his dreams and desires.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you choose coffee business as a career? What are your memories of establishing The Coffee House?
Truly speaking, I first opened the coffee shop for a simple purpose: earning money. The reason was so simple: I like to go to coffee shops.
After some years of doing business in the coffee sector, I gained some achievements. At the age of 26, however, I recognised that earning money did not bring me energy and I always wondered what should I do to have a meaningful life.
A turning point in my life was meeting Đinh Anh Huân, founder of Seedcom foundation. His story of setting up the famous thegiodidong.com, the biggest domestic mobile phone retailer in the country, inspired me.
Thanks to his advice, I recognised that, in Việt Nam, going to a coffee shop was not simply about drinking a cup of coffee. Going to a coffee shop, he taught me, was actually a chance for people to share with friends and relatives. It was also a place to set up and develop networking.
This was the destiny for me to dream of building a “coffee house”. I can still remember one night talking to my father. I asked him what would happen if I quit everything I had achieved and restarted my career. He smiled and encouraged me: “I have two land lots. One, I am living on. The other, I have built seven rooms for rent with an income of over VNĐ10 million per month. That is enough for you to live if you fail.”
So, he encouraged me to pursue the dream. He said: “You have reached some achievements. The most important thing is that you should do what you want so that you will never regret it the future. The Coffee House was born and it became my source of energy in daily life and has made my life meaningful.
Inner Sanctum: What inspired your desire to take Vietnamese coffee to the world? What is its status now?
It was my endless love for coffee that inspired me to take Vietnamese coffee to the world. I want to bring my clients the best experiences when enjoying a cup of coffee. And I want to bring this value to not only Vietnamese people but also foreigners elsewhere around the world.
Last year, The Coffee House started its journey titled “From Farm to Cup”. This is one among several steps that we are taking to reach the dream of bringing Vietnamese coffee to the world. We apply tough regulations to all of the steps of making coffee, including seeding, producing, drying and roasting, so that we can bring the best products to customers. In addition, we conduct our business under the philosophy of bringing happiness to customers from the smallest things.
Nguyễn Hải Ninh, founder of The Coffee House.
Inner Sanctum: You also grow coffee. But you once said it was not for profit, but to inspire coffee farmers to change their cultivation methods and grow the best coffee. Can you tell us more?
Yes, I too plant coffee. When I was developing my coffee chain, I recognised that coffee quality had declined because of the farmers' habit of fertilising and harvesting unripe coffee beans. They often fertilise their coffee plants without paying attention to any instructions. The quality is not good, so the price is not high.
Because of that, farmers do not have a deep belief in their future and do not do their work with their heart. Farmers just plant coffee for a short-term profit. All of these factors create a vicious circle without an exit.
I really want farmers to have a stable, good income so they can believe in what they are doing. This will help them plant coffee with high quality, earning higher profits. It is true that encouraging and persuading farmers to follow us is not easy. Most of them have rich experiences in planting coffee, and some have even been planting coffee longer than our ages. However, we now have successfully inspired and convinced them.
Inner Sanctum: Over the last year, your campaign to support coffee farmers “From Farm to Cup” has had many successes. Can you tell us about the campaign?
The biggest achievement that I have gained since investing in the coffee sector is creating a movement to plant high-quality coffee in Cầu Đất, a Vietnamese coffee-growing region located 25 kilometres from Đà Lạt.
It is the long-term, stable co-operation with The Coffee House that has helped local farmers feel stable and secure in planting coffee with a more professional method. They use more organic fertiliser, keep the environment clean, choose high-quality coffee beans, and study techniques in order to increase the quality.
Coffee growers recently faced many challenges when Vietnamese coffee hit the floor price in the 2018-19 crop. Drought also contributed to a lost season. As a result, many farmers decided to sell their gardens or plant other trees.
Seeing the difficulties, we made efforts to help farmers stabilise their lives. We bought coffee at VNĐ100,000 per kilo even when the price fell to VNĐ60,000 per kilo. That price was chosen to give them a stable life. Last year, we also expanded our purchases, buying coffee from hundreds of hectares in Gia Lai at a price that was nearly double the price in the market.
The “From Farm to Cup” campaign was launched by The Coffee House with the main aim of having more people develop the coffee sector in a professional way, as well as to protect coffee farmers so that we can all bring the Vietnamese coffee brand to the world.
I always think that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but The Coffee House and I will be ready to be that first swallow.
Inner Sanctum: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Vietnamese coffee companies compared to their foreign peers? What should local coffee companies do to compete with giant foreign rivals?
Việt Nam has many regions that plant coffee, and we are now the second biggest coffee exporter. However, we face many challenges, including the lowest price in the last 10 years, causing losses of over VNĐ3 trillion. Also, continuous poor crops have stolen farmers’ belief in the coffee plant, and the export value has gone down.
However, quality is the biggest challenge that the domestic coffee sector is facing. Some 90 per cent of coffee is for export, and only 10 per cent of harvested coffee is of high quality. So, although the export volume is very high, the value is not much. I'm afraid that if the situation continues, we'll no longer be in the second position.
Inner Sanctum: What is your advice to young people who want to pursue their dream?
I want to send a message to those who would love to start a business: ambition and develop your strength. Not all people are strong enough to start a business. There will be many difficulties. For a startup, you need to prepare well and be practical. VNS