From banking to coffee farming: Swiss man aims to bring Vietnamese quality coffee to the world

Marc Zihlmann is building up a sustainable coffee production “from farm to cup” in line with international quality standards, creating jobs and improving the livelihood of local farmers in one of the poorest areas of Vietnam.

by Thảo Nguyên, Minh Tuấn

Four years ago, Marc decided to quit his corporate job at Credit Suisse in Zurich to explore his passion elsewhere. In early 2018, he unexpectedly found both the inspiring product and the love of his life while travelling around Vietnam.

His future wife NGUYỄN Lê Thạch Thảo had already started her own coffee company back in 2015. After visiting her factory in the Central Highlands and meeting the poor local ethic farmers growing Arabica coffee as their main income source, Marc took a life-changing decision and moved to Vietnam.

Vietnam is the second biggest producer and exporter of coffee after Brazil, with a global market share of 17% in 2020. However, until a few years ago, the focus in Vietnam was more on output quantity than on quality and around 95% of the coffee produced in Vietnam is Robusta coffee, which is of lower quality and mostly used in instant coffee products.

Happy cooperative members harvesting their coffee cherries

Chappi Mountains Coffee is one of the pioneers in Vietnam in the niche of high-quality and specialty coffee products based on international standards. The main focus of the company is on the sustainable production of Arabica coffee “from farm to cup”.

The couple has initiated the Chappi Mountains Arabica Cooperative to work closely with local coffee farmers, control the quality “from farm to cup” and help the farmers improve their livelihoods through the payment of a substantial premium for their coffee cherries compared to the standard market price.

At the moment, the company is collaborating with around 50 small holder farmer families who are growing coffee on 50 hectares.

Together with two Dutch NGOs (SNV and IDH), whose activities are financed by the German Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, the company is supporting the farmers with coffee and intercropping seedlings, organic fertilizer and educating them on sustainable farming and eco-tourism related activities.

UTZ training for local coffee farmers

Besides the production of Arabica and Robusta coffee, the company has developed a range of flavored specialty coffee products with chocolate and herbal ingredients like ginseng and ganoderma, which are also sourced from local farmers.

The couple has decided to focus on roasted coffee products rather than on green coffee in order to generate as much added value as possible in Vietnam by creating many new and stable jobs in one of the poorest areas in the Central Highlands.

Marc Zihlmann now breathes and sleeps with coffee

Asked about his daily life as a farmer in a remote mountainous village, Marc told SVBG writers via video call with a chuck: “I don’t have anything to complain about. Vietnam treats me well. Life here is like that of my father’s family in the old times when Switzerland was less urbanized. My work now starts early in the morning at the farm or in the coffee factory.
Over the last few years, I have learned a lot about coffee farming and processing. It is a very complex topic. The experience of my wife’s family has helped me a lot to broaden my know-how.
The more I’ve learned, the stronger passion for coffee has built up.”

Since December 2020, Chappi Mountains Arabica coffee is Vietnam’s first fully UTZ certified coffee “from farm to cup”. All the other roasted coffee products are likewise certified according to UTZ/Rainforest Alliance standards.

In 2019, the Vietnamese government has started to recognize Marc and Thảo’s special efforts to develop a sustainable and inclusive business model. They are now promoting the Chappi project as a role model for the future development of the agriculture in the Central Highlands.

Thảo (left) and local farmers working for Chappi Mountains Coffee

The Chappi Mountains Arabica Coffee has been selected by the Vietnamese Government to become a member of OCOP (One Commune One Product), a program which is supporting sustainable and socially responsible business practices.

Marc and Thảo are also organizing farm trips for coffee enthusiasts who want to learn more about coffee cultivation, harvesting and processing techniques. They are operating a coffee shop/restaurant and a homestay retreat with 10 wooden bungalows in the middle of the coffee plantation area.

Currently the company is supplying their high-quality products in Vietnam to many coffee shops and high-end hotel customers like Sheraton, IBIS, Novotel, The Anam, Banyan Tree etc., as well as to a growing community of coffee lovers and enthusiasts.

Some products of Chappi Mountains Coffee

Marc is now very determined to bring his Chappi Mountains Coffee brand to his homeland Switzerland and to Europe. The products’ unique taste, international production standards as well as the sustainable and community-based approach surely cater to the most demanding clientele in the region. SVBG

Company Contact Info:

Marc Zihlmann, Owner and International Business Representative