Weekly Local Biography

 Jacques Op de Laak

Jacques Op de Laak is a man who enjoys his coffee. He drinks four to five cups of pure Arabica coffee every day, but Jacques’ interest in coffee goes much further than just drinking it. He is a man who has spent 35 years in search of the perfect coffee bean. In fact, it’s his life’s work.

Jacques was born in Holland during WWII. His father was a teacher who worked day and night (but not every night!) to support his family of 12 children, with Jacques fourth from the top. His father passed on to his children the gift of education, saying, “With 12 children I cannot give you money - but I can give you education.”

Jacques was a middle of the road student, but his father pushed him towards university to study Social Geography and Anthropology; however, after 18 months Jacques gave up. The cloistered halls of academia were not for him, but it was National Army service that was waiting, Jacques spending the next two years in the cavalry.

While riding his fertilizer producer, he had heard about the College of Tropical Agriculture in Holland and he entered. “It was the ‘tropical’ part of it. I wanted to see the tropics. I even used to spend my time looking through atlases to get a glimpse of the outside world.”

He emerged three years later with his B.Sc. in Agriculture and a desire to visit the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, the country from which one of his tutors had come.

He was almost immediately successful, given an opportunity for work in Timor, but the coup ended that chance. He decided in the interim that he should become more proficient in English and went to Ireland. I raised my eyebrows at this and Jacques laughed, but we did not pursue it.

However, by 1967 he was accepted for a position in Indonesia as an agricultural advisor, where he spent the next three years on various agricultural projects covering fruit trees, maize, rice, vegetables and coffee in most parts of Indonesian Timor. He was asked to extend his contract, but declined, telling me, “I wasn’t going to bury myself there!”

He returned to Holland and met a girl from his own village, and married a kindred spirit who was also excited by travel and the tropics. A chance meeting with someone who turned down a posting in Kenya resulted in Jacques and his wife heading to Africa to take that appointment. The next fifteen years were spent in various places in Kenya. “It was a marvellous period, probably one of the best times of our lives. It was exhilarating. I still enjoy watching African wildlife on TV.”

During that time he was responsible for research into the two main problems with commercial Arabica coffee growing. These were Coffee Berry Disease and Coffee Leaf Rust, and while these could be kept in check with fungicides, by selective breeding Jacques reduced the costs of production by 35%. By now his studies into coffee covered agronomy, horticulture, irrigation technology, crop rotations and agricultural extensions. Jacques was becoming one of the most experienced field workers, able to pass on the practicalities of modern agricultural methods to traditional farmers in Kenya. These practical classes even covered bookkeeping and how to manage credit facilities. This was true practical assistance in a developing country.

His projects completed, he returned to Holland to see where he could go to next - as long as it was somewhere in the tropics! A surprise vacancy came up in tropical Thailand. They needed a coffee researcher here. While Jacques was an experienced practical worker in the field, he did not consider himself a researcher, but despite this, he was offered the post, which he took, first studying Thai for two months in Holland. For Jacques who had a flair for languages, this was just another language he could add to his proficiency in English, German, Indonesian, French, Kiswahili and Spanish.

The next nine years were spent mainly in Thailand, working in the Highland Coffee and Research and Development Centre in Chiang Mai, which itself moved under the umbrella of Chiang Mai University. He was responsible for more than 40 research projects, and was instrumental in the introduction of disease resistant Arabica coffee as an alternative crop to opium in the highlands of Thailand, Burma and Laos. There he forged links with many UN backed groups, which in turn brought him to the attention of many overseas organizations.

While Chiang Mai was his base, he made several advisory missions around the world, including Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Indonesia, Brazil, Costa Rica, returning to Kenya, Laos and India.

In 1993 he took study leave for two years, but the boy with the love of geography needed to find tropical climes again. This came as a posting to Ethiopia as an agricultural advisor for poor communities in that poorest of poor countries. For Jacques it was an opportunity to go to where the word ‘coffee’ came from, known as ‘kaffa’ in Ethiopia.

This contract over, he returned to Holland and the all-pervading cold. There was nothing offering that he wanted, so he asked the Dutch government if he could return to tropical Thailand, to Chiang Mai, and see what opportunities there might be here. They agreed and Jacques and his wife were on the next plane, “We were very happy to be back!”

Since his return he has made numerous field trips to Laos, Vietnam and Burma, was the speaker and resource person at the 7th International Coffee Conference and is the senior coffee advisor to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s projects in Burma and Vietnam.

Now having just entered his 6th cycle, he remains as enthusiastic as ever about his work and coffee growing. “My work is my hobby,” he says, “Coffee is such a thrilling and interesting experience.”

So next time you have that morning coffee ‘hit’, please remember it needed someone like Jacques to make it happen!