Coffee in Paradise
By staff reporter MATHILDE NEILSEN-EARLE
TO most people, Shangri-La, a place name introduced to the world by British author James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon, represents paradise, longevity, and a kind of natural purity rarely found in this day and age. It thus seems fitting that Shangri-La Farms, a natural products company, takes its name from the legendary city in northwestern Yunnan, from where it also sources most of its produce.
The company was founded by the Malik family. The epitome of globalization, their origins lie in the U.S. and Pakistan and their work has taken them all over the world. It is China, however, where the youngest generation of the family has chosen to settle down.
When the Maliks first came to Yunnan almost a decade ago, they fell in love with the province’s idyllic landscape – and its organic producers. The family’s three children decided to start a business there to bring its produce to the rest of China in a way that benefited the farmers around Shangri-La.
Local laborers harvest coffee beans under the harsh Yunnan sun.
Growing Roots, and Coffee
If the Malik children say they are from anywhere in particular they say they are from New York, but in reality they spent their childhood living in countries all over the world. Their father is Pakistani but moved to the U.S. Their mother is American, but grew up in India. With no real roots in any individual country, they could have ended up leading their lives anywhere, but fate led them to China.
Sahra, Alia and Safi first came to China because of their father, who had taken the position of resident coordinator of the UN in China. Safi, still a teenager, attended an international school in Beijing. Sahra and Alia had already finished school and moved out of the family home, but were encouraged by their father to join the family as it moved to the East. “Come to China and see how you like it,” he said to Sahra. She followed his advice, and it was here that she got her first job.
Soon after they arrived, their mother moved to Shangri-La and established an NGO called the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation (YMHF), which aims to protect and promote cultural heritage, handicrafts and sustainable tourism in the area. It was through the NGO that the younger Maliks became well acquainted with Yunnan and its people. To this day, the YMHF runs the Yunnan Mountain Heritage and Handicraft Center in Diqing Prefrecture, where it works with the community to promote local cultural heritage, handicrafts, and eco-tourism.
The family enjoyed traveling in the area, and came across a coffee shop that sold remarkably good coffee. They inquired about the coffee and, by chance, the head farmer of the cooperative responsible for growing it happened to be there. They immediately arranged a visit to his farm, and were impressed with the organic credentials of the operation. After several visits, they became good friends with the farmer. He bemoaned the fact that profits were small – the cooperative lacked sales channels through which they could sell processed drinking coffee to the rest of China.
Later, Sahra, who was working as a senior art director at an advertising firm, helped design packaging for the coffee so that it could be sold to raise money for YMHF. This put an idea in her head: selling the organic, “ethical” coffee of Shangri-La Farms to the Chinese market would be a great way to bolster the profits of local farmers. “I thought I should put my skills to good use,” she says. “I quit my job and started doing this full time.”