A market brews for organic tea

Tea growers around Pindaya in the Danu Self-Administered Zone are going organic as more foreign buyers show interest in the area’s chemical-free green tea.

By KYAW YE LYNN | FRONTIER

THE SMALL tea plantations that hug the slopes of Mount Yasagi near Pindaya in southern Shan State are undergoing a transformation, as growers cash in on the international market potential for organic products.

The plantation owners hope that the area will be totally devoted to organic farming within three years as they strive to satisfy rising demand for chemical-free green tea.

As the transformation continues, they are becoming increasingly vigilant about chemical pollution and that means they keep an eye on trekkers in the area, which is famous for its limestone caves and the placid Bote Talote lake.

In the early hours of a misty December morning, Frontier saw dozens of people ambling through villages and tea plantations at Pindaya during the one-hour trek to the famous Shwe Oo Min Pagoda limestone caves in the Danu Self-Administered Zone.

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“We ask the travellers not to do some things such as littering and smoking while passing through the farm,” said U San Maung, who owns a two-acre (0.8 hectare) tea plantation in Pindaya Township.

“We explain to them this is important for us because we are changing to organic farming,” he said, as he pruned tea bushes.

San Maung previously grew cash crops between his tea bushes, known as space farming. He had used chemical fertiliser and insecticides on the cash crops, which he stopped growing when organic farming methods were introduced in the area two years ago.

Although most farmers had not used insecticides on their tea bushes, he said tests had detected chemicals in the leaves. This was because farmers were using chemicals on the cash crops produced between the rows of tea bushes, said San Maung, who turned to organic farming after learning that he could earn more from selling tea leaves that were untainted by chemicals.

“The market is stable now because German companies are buying dried tea leaves from us,” he said, with a big smile.

Community-based Pindaya Tea Cluster, which is affiliated with the Myanmar Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Producers and Exporters Association, began exporting dried tea leaves to Germany last year.

“It was the first time Myanmar exported organic green tea,” said U Myo Lwin, an accountant with Pindaya Tea Cluster, who has a three-acre tea plantation.

TeeGschwendner, a Germany-based international chain of shops that sells loose-leaf tea and tea accessories, bought 1.5 tonnes of green tea from the growers at Pindaya.

The sale was arranged with assistance from the Myanmar-Germany Private Sector Development arm of GIZ, the German agency for international development.

The farmers reaped a handsome return for going organic.

Myo Lwin said the farmers were paid about K15,000 a viss (1.6kg, 3.6lb) for the export shipment.

“That is [nearly] three times more than the domestic market price of K6,000 a viss,” he said.

Pindaya Tea Cluster was yet to sign a contract with TeeGschwendner this year, but Myo Lwin said the company had already committed to importing at least three tonnes of green tea from the area.

“The company is happy with the quality and price [and] said it will increase the purchase amount year by year,” he told Frontier.

Burma began exporting tea during British colonial rule. In 1937, the British-owned Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation established a tea processing factory at Namhsan in northern Shan State.

However, the country’s tea industry is best known for its tea leaf salad, or lahpet thoke, said U Kyaw Thiha, vice-chair of the Mandalay-based Myanmar Tea Association.

“Some people don’t know Myanmar’s green tea, but most know lahpet thoke,” he said.

Lahpet thoke is a unique Myanmar dish, and it already has a place in the international market,” said Kyaw Thiha, who is also managing director of Nara Organic Green Tea Industry, a company based in Pinlaung Township in Shan State’s Pa-O Self-Administered Zone.

Kyaw Thiha said Myanmar green tea had only recently begun to attract foreign buyers because processing methods had improved, a development for which he can claim some credit. In the past, farmers had produced dried tea leaves using processing methods that resulted in poor product quality, he said.

The MTA says there are more than 800,000 acres (323,748ha) of tea plantations in Myanmar, of which more than 600,000 acres are in Shan State.

Kyaw Thiha has been working with the government and farmers to improve the quality of tea grown in Kachin and Chin states since 2007, when the country was under junta rule.

For the past three years he has focused attention on the Pindaya area, where there are more than 8,000 acres of tea plantations.

Kyaw Thiha’s contribution to the industry has included developing a processing machine that enables growers to consistently produce high-quality tea leaves.

The invention earned Nara Organic Green Tea Industry a first prize in awards presented by the Myanmar SME Development Agency last year.

Kyaw Thiha said the machine costs only K10 million, about a quarter of the price of similar machinery imported from China. “I am happy to see farmers now producing quality tea leaves because of the machine,” he said.

He welcomes the expansion in the industry spurred by increasing foreign interest in buying organic green tea.

He said Chado, a German company, had expressed interest in buying up to 50 tonnes of organic dried tea leaves from his company this year, but that his company had been unable to meet the demand.

“We are still struggling with internationally recognised organic certificates,” Kyaw Thiha said, referring to documentation aimed at protecting consumers and the reputation of organic products. “We will be ready for it next year.”

This article was first published on https://investmyanmar2019.com/. The Invest Myanmar Summit 2019 will be held in Nay Pyi Taw on January 28 and 29.

Correction, January 26: This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Chado is a German, not an American, company. 

TOP PHOTO: Ann Wang | Frontier

By Kyaw Ye Lynn

By Kyaw Ye Lynn

Kyaw Ye Lynn is a Myanmar journalist based in Yangon. Prior to joining Frontier, he worked as a freelance journalist and fixer. He began his career at the Popular News weekly journal in 2011.
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