Rebuilding Laos, One Book at a Time

 Rebuilding Laos, One Book at a Time

By Christine Medina

It’s no secret that Seattleites have a reputation for being crazy about their coffee. But for Tyson Adams, a love of good coffee went beyond indulging in the Starbucks and artisan cafes of his hometown, and instead fueled a mission for the greater good: The liveGLOCAL Foundation “” an organization Adams initially founded as a way for Laotians to export their coffee to the Emerald City and have the profits reinvested in their communities.

Now Adams runs a full-fledged nonprofit organization out of Seattle, making multiple trips to Laos throughout the year. After moving on from importing coffee, he partnered with several other nonprofits to provide Laotian communities access to clean water, libraries and educational resources. I caught up with Adams to learn more about his organization, his vision and how he’s turned a dream (literally!) into a reality…

Culture-ist: As the founder of a nonprofit, your story is certainly inspiring. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your organization?
Tyson: Three-and-a-half-years ago, I took my first solo-backpacking trip out of the country. I did a month in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and was forever changed by the experience. Since that time, I’ve considered myself a ‘Philanthropreneur,’ which is the combination of philanthropy and entrepreneurship. You could also call it ‘Social Business’.  Regardless of how you label it, I found my calling in creating business ventures that both provide a profit and alleviate poverty by reinvesting that profit back into the communities that need it most.

liveGLOCAL began as a social venture that imported coffee from Laos, sold it in the Northwest, and then reinvested its profits back into the coffee community in the form of education for the children who grow it. Because of issues with coffee quality and suppliers, this business was folded and transformed into the liveGLOCAL Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, seeking to address clean water and educational issues in the country of Laos and specifically in the region of Paksong where they grow coffee and tea. These Laotian families are not used to Westerners, and in almost all cases, we were the first white people that these communities have ever seen. These people live without electricity, in the remote jungle, and live off of about $0.38 per family member per day.

Culture-ist: Travel is undoubtedly an eye-opening experience. How did your passion for volunteering begin? Was there a certain experience you had that propelled you towards starting liveGLOCAL, or was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Tyson: During my four months in Asia, I was in Laos and had a dream.  Yes — a real dream while sleeping. In that dream, I saw myself importing coffee from Asia to Seattle and reinvesting the profits in the form of education. When I awoke, I jotted the business idea down into my journal, which turned out to be about five pages filled with ideas. I then researched on the Internet and found Laos had coffee in the southern part of the country. I planned what time remained on my visa around visiting this area. Once I got there, I rented a motorbike and drove into the remote jungle until I found the one Lao guy who seemed to be the only person in the entire region who spoke English. From that day on, the business was viable and I followed this dream to reality.

Culture-ist: You’ve traveled several times on behalf of liveGLOCAL to Laos, installing water-pumps, libraries and improving the overall quality of life for many families and children. What was it about Laos specifically that drew you to focus your philanthropic efforts there?
Tyson: Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world — ever. During the Vietnam war, America dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs on Laos every 8.5 minutes for nine straight years. And of the 270 million bombs that were dropped, 80 million are still in the ground and activated.  Oh… and did I mention that Laos was technically not involved in the war? That said, I am not working in Laos to right the wrongs that America has yet to take responsibility for. However, the people are resilient, lovely, and kind. Not to mention forgiving. For them to even let me into their country to do development work is a blessing and I feel very lucky.

Culture-ist: I understand that liveGLOCAL’s most recent project included installing water pumps in local villages. I believe access to clean water is a basic human right, as it’s the most critical of human necessities, and in developed countries, it’s something we take for granted. How would you recommend someone get involved with this cause? Does liveGLOCAL have any volunteer opportunities in Laos, or with the program in general?
Tyson: liveGLOCAL would love to offer any novice or experienced person the opportunity to assist in finding grants for our organization. This requires some entrepreneurial and financial preparation, the ability to conduct interviews, and excellent writing skills — all of which are easy to learn. Just shoot us an email. The second thing that we need is someone to manage our Facebook page. At the moment, I am very busy and our foundation’s executive director is now living in Peru. We do need a little help! Internship credit is available.

Culture-ist: You’ve collaborated with several different organizations such as MiiR, Philanthroper, Early Bird Coffee, and more. Can you explain your belief in co-investment and how it’s such an integral part of liveGLOCAL?
Tyson: Co-investment is less about our partners and more of an on the ground development philosophy. Simply stated, co-investment is when both parties (the community and liveGLOCAL) bring money to solve the immediate education or clean water problem that they are facing.

It takes both need and an ability to co-invest for us to partner with a village. Without these two important requirements, we have found that books and resources are not cared for and negative, dependent qualities are created. Communities, if not properly managed, can even waste or reject aid and aid opportunities. We do not work with communities that we feel do not take the education system seriously. Every village in Laos says that they need aid, but few bring their own resources to the table to invest in their children’s future. We look for at least a 15 percent co-investment when doing projects, which usually requires the village chief and community leaders to pool money by visiting the homes in the village to ask for donations.

Both of our water pumps were co-investments. The community managed the building of the pump, which included purchasing the concrete, fence materials, as well as building it. They paid about 1,600,000 kip, or $200. We paid 13,000,000 kip, or $1,600 for the pump, so in this situation the community co-invested 12.5 percent of the final project costs.

The benefit of co-investment includes a shared sense of ownership, pride in the project, better upkeep and community acceptance. Many organizations around the globe force aid on whomever they think needs help and I don’t believe in this approach. Too often aid is rejected. Co-investment is the only way that aid should be distributed — period. I strongly believe in this method and if I could have it my way, I would make it a 50/50 co-investment where liveGLOCAL and the village each pay half.

Culture-ist: What do you envision for liveGLOCAL’s future? Any plans to expand your efforts outside of Laos?
Tyson: liveGLOCAL’s future is in Laos. In fact, I could work a lifetime there and barely make a dent. There are major opportunities for education growth. Right now Laos lacks a reading culture ““ there is no push for children to read books. This limits their potential to learn and ultimately creates a cycle of poverty. Without education, these children cannot learn the skills needed to compete in a developing society and eventually fall behind, leaving them to a life with little promise for success.

 

christine Rebuilding Laos, One Book at a TimeAbout Christine Medina
Christine Medina is a freelance writer, aspiring photographer and wanderlust-stricken expat currently living in Andalusia, Spain. Upon graduating from The University of Washington with a BA in Communications and a BA in Social Science, she set off to Spain to immerse herself in a new culture and learn the Spanish language. She writes about expat life and all things Spain on her blog, http://www.christineinspain.com. Follow Christine on Twitter at @christinenspain

Photo via liveGLOCAL

  • http://www.danielmcbane.com Daniel McBane

    As maybe the only non-coffee-drinker ever to have lived in the Seattle area, I can’t comment on Laotian coffee, but the people I was traveling with raved about the coffee from the Bolaven plateau. I can say that the tea they grow there is not very good though.

    As for Tyson;s foundation, this is the right way to help out. I meet so many people who do those “pay to volunteer” programs where very little of the money actually goes to those who need it and it always annoys me a little. Just a little more effort beyond signing up on some website and paying a ridiculously high fee and your time, effort and money will be put to much better use. Obviously, you don’t have to go so far as to found your own organization, but a just little more research could lead you to the groups that actually do make a difference.