Famous Tenom coffee risks decline
Published on: Sunday, February 28, 2021
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Red mature coffee berries are the best.
TENOM coffee is very famous in Sabah. But that established reputation now risks decline as interest in planting coffee gets lesser and lesser, says Tham Yau Siong, Chairman of the newly formed Sabah Tenom Coffee Association (Persatuan Penhuhasa Kopi Tenom Sabah).    

As singer Jon Mihail noted: “Reputation opens or closes doors, so protect it at all costs.”

“What we try to do is to recapture that reputation,” said Tham Yau Siong, Chairman of a yet to be officially launched Sabah Tenom Coffee Association (Persatuan Pengusaha Kopi Tenom Sabah). 

Tham cited a strange paradox. 

While the consumption of coffee is rising in Malaysia, production is not, and even minuscule.   

“Malaysia imports something like 110,000 tonnes of coffee every year at a cost of about RM1.5 billion, but overall in Malaysia, there are less than 5,000 hectares of coffee planted.

“In Tenom, there are only a few hundred hectares of the crop,” Tham noted.     

Association to push back low interest

“When you talk to people about planting coffee, you hear their aversions: ‘Oh, I have done it before, it’s very tough, a lot of work, a lot of ants etc’. 

“So a lot of them don’t plant coffee any more. But to me, that is the thinking of the 1960s. It is now 2020s, we have new techniques of taking care of coffee plants and ants.

“This is why we decided to form the association, to train as many small man of the street as possible better techniques. Unfortunately, Covid-19 held us back but after that, we will push coffee. I hope in five years we will get the results – an increase in local production.”

There is a future in coffee, Tham believes.

“This is one point I am telling people: Do you know the world coffee consumption is very big? One article in 2016 estimated that every day, the world consumes about 2.5 billion cups of coffee! 

“And that was at a time when China had not stepped in yet but now coffee is getting more popular in China. That’s why I believe coffee has a good future,” Tham argued.

But even now, there seems to be a lot of incentives not to plant coffee.

The Government has always encouraged coffee but gave little explanations of the benefits.

Championing small folk incentives  

More and more, Tham believes championing small, appropriate technologies, empowering people especially the small guys, may ignite the fire and works – a  reminder of British economist Schumacher’s mantra “Small is Beautiful” – a study of economics as if people mattered.     

“In Tenom, one hectare (2.5 acres) of trees can yield about four tonnes of beans and that is considered quite conservative. If the trees are mature after six to seven years, one hectare can produce up to seven tonnes per year but you must take care of them.

“Yes, just a small area but surprisingly big tonnage and big price makes the incentive looks attractive.      

“Let’s say every farmer plants two hectares and take care of the trees properly, every year they can harvest 10 tonnes of beans and that is an annual income of RM100,000 because the price is RM10,000 per tonne – very decent income indeed for the Man on the Street!” Tham noted.

“That’s why I have told the Agriculture Department we must take back the reputation of Tenom Coffee because it can really help the Kampung people.”

RM100,000 from only two hectares?

“Imagine from just two hectares and 2,000 trees, I think as a small family, taking care of the crop is very easy, no need to employ workers because nowadays the agricultural industry is very much dependent on foreign workers. 

“So if we encourage people to plant coffee small scale, take care of it properly, every year they can get RM90,000 to RM100,000 at a price of RM10,000 per tonne. That way, we increase the incomes of the kampungs and Tenom will also do well,” Tham asserted.

“I think it is very easy to recapture the reputation of Tenom Coffee if we start doing it and at the same time helping the kampong people.” 

Help cut out the hefty imports

“Tenom has no reason to fail,” says Tham, who has planted about six acres of coffee in his Sapong farm. 

“Our land is very suitable for coffee and in fact for everything, Tenom soil is very unique and suitable for everything (fertile alluvial soil believed left behind by a huge ancient lake which later drained away after the erosive action of water managed to cut through the Crocker Range to form present day Tenom gorge through which the Padas River now flows down to Beaufort).

“As I have noted, not many people realise that Malaysia imports about 110,000 tonnes of coffee worth RM1.5 billion every year so my mission is to plant coffee and help reduce the import bill. 

“On the one hand, we help the Government to reduce imports and at the same time, raise the incomes of the Kampung folks.”

The Musing coffee quality secret revealed  

“The next stop is to raise standard and produce quality coffee in Sabah,” he said.

“At the moment, Vietnam is planting coffee commercially, using a lot of machines so in terms of quantity we cannot beat them. But when the kampung folks pick only the ripe berries, the quality of the beans becomes better. 

“This is one reason why the Musang Coffee is famous for its aroma because the animal never eat the green ones only the ripe berries,” Tham revealed an interesting secret.       

“And the beauty of a small holder coffee farm is when you reach 80 years old, you can still harvest the berries because it is very easy as coffee trees are not tall,” Tham noted.   


Sabah Tenom Coffee Association Chairman Tham Yau Siong (left) with young coffee tree. At right is Winston Tham of Padas Farm. 

Healthy coffee berries form in clusters along the branches.

Tham Yau Kong with clusters of unripe coffee berries. Once ripened, they are bright red.

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