Niche food market begins to bloom

The determination of a Palaung entrepreneur to realise a dream for his region has highlighted Myanmar’s huge potential for producing and exporting organic produce.


U Tun Myaing’s enthusiasm for growing organic produce on the fertile, untainted soil of his home region in northern Shan State is infectious.

“I want the whole area to become an organic zone,” said U Tun Myaing, referring to the Palaung Self-Administered Zone.

U Tun Myaing, a Ta’ang or Paluang, who is also known as Nelson Rweel, sees the Ta’ang (Palaung) National Party as playing a key role in helping to realise the region’s potential for producing organic produce.

“The Ta’ang (Palaung) National Party won five seats in Parliament and seven in the Assembly so that will be a big input. They need to keep records and work with the local government to ensure that people do not import chemical products,” he said.

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U Tun Myaing knows what it takes to go organic. His company, Shwe Panlaw Manufacturing Co., Ltd, last year became the first Myanmar firm to be certified as organic by an international organisation. It’s a new feather in the cap for the Ta’ang region, better known for fighting and opium cultivation.

U Tun Myaing, 37, was born in Namhsan, one of the region’s main towns, and came to Yangon in 1999 to learn English and finish his studies. In 2005 he set up the Nelson English Language Centre and in 2010 he used his profits from the school to upgrade his family-run tea factory in the Ta’ang region, an area famed for its black tea.

In August last year he approached CU Myanmar (Pvt) Ltd – the Myanmar branch of the Dutch certifier Control Union – to apply for an organic certificate for the family factory’s Mebayar tea brand.  It cost a whopping US$12,000 in fees and took two months before the operation was certified in October 2014.  “One good thing about our farm is we never used chemicals before,” U Tun Myaing said. “In fact the whole Ta’ang area has never used chemicals and the water there is pure mountain fed.” U Tun Myaing thought an organic label would help his Mebayar brand compete with Chinese tea imports and maybe get it into the European Union and United States markets. Instead the certificate took the tea company into a new export niche.

“Our target was to export black tea but luckily the only thing that got our product in the US market was the tea salad,” U Tun Myaing told Frontier. “We never thought we could export our tea salad, because we thought people didn’t know about it because this is just a Myanmar product. No one else eats tea leaves.” The Ta’ang, of Mon-Khmer ancestry, claim to have created the tea leaf salad made from fermented tea leaves (lephetthoke) that they have been making for centuries in Shan State and Yunnan, China. “This tea salad was consumed by Burmese kings,” U Tan Myaing said, citing historical records. Nowadays, tea-leaf salad, one of the nation’s signature dishes, is on the menu in many Myanmar restaurants, and is a specialty at food stalls along the Yangon River.

Myanmar is arguably the only country where people eat tea leaves, but there’s demand for the product overseas because of the number of Myanmar living abroad, some of whom have become restaurant entrepreneurs. They include the owner of the Burma Super Star chain of restaurants in San Francisco, who travelled to Yangon last year to source a supplier of fermented tea leaves. He met U Tun Myaing, who owned the only tea brand with an internationally recognised organic certificate, always a selling point on the US food market. Burma Super Star also persuaded U Tun Myaing to change his tea leaf fermentation process – which traditionally involves keeping bags of leaves in the ground or under heavy stones – to make it more hygienic.

This enabled the Mebayar brand to qualify for another food standard certificate, the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Process), which is also deemed necessary in the finicky US market. Control Union also conducted the HACCP assessment. U Tun Myaing shipped his second container of processed tea leaves to the US on November 28.

Control Union, one of the world’s leading certification companies with offices in 65 countries, established a presence in Yangon in early 2014. “If you look at Asia, we are present in all the countries except Laos and Mongolia,” said Roshan Ranawake, the managing director of CU Myanmar. The company works closely with importers of organic products in the EU and the US and potential exporters in Asia, acting as an advisor and guide for the latter to get their products certified for the lucrative Western market, for a fee.

There is growing awareness, at least in Yangon, of the benefits of organic produce and healthier diets.

It’s been a hard sell in Myanmar, said Mr Ranawake.  “In Myanmar, the exports are more oriented to the East than to the West,” he said. Myanmar exports corn, rice and watermelons to China and pulses and beans to India, two countries that are not overly concerned about organic certification. Tea and coffee are another matter. Myanmar’s coffee production is primarily geared to the domestic market, where demand for organic products is underdeveloped but showing signs of growth among high-income earners. Some coffee growers are exporting to South Korea and Japan.

“Right now they (South Korea and Japan) are not demanding much on organic but they have indicated that they want food safety in place,” Mr Ranawake said. “In organic it’s more about chemical residue, but in food safety it’s about hygiene,” he said. Control Union conducts assessments for a long list of certificates, including nine for organic products, five for food safety, three for management systems and others for free trade and good agricultural practice.

The government has yet to set standards for organic products. Private groups, such as the Myanmar Organic Agriculture Growers, have established some standards and issue their own certificates. “There is already a local standard in Myanmar but it has not been institutionalized; it has not gone to parliament,” Mr Ranawake said. “Of course we support them as well because their focus is on the local market.” 

There is growing awareness, at least in Yangon, of the benefits of organic produce and healthier diets, said Mr Paolo Cerati, the founder of FRESCO, one of the first suppliers of chemical-free vegetables on the domestic market. Mr Cerati, an agronomist who came to Myanmar with an Italian non-government organisation to develop sustainable crops in Shan State, launched FRESCO in 2007 to supply “safe” vegetables to the market. It supplies restaurants, hotels and retail outlets.

City Mart, the biggest supermarket chain in Myanmar, has been a customer of FRESCO from the start and in some outlets sells the company’s produce under a “Fresh Vegetables” sign. But the last eight years have been challenging for Mr Cerati. “For me I see the demand is just growing,” he told Frontier. “For example, our normal City Mart orders have been bigger and bigger in the past two years,” he said. Costs have risen, with Yangon’s traffic wreaking havoc with deliveries. “It’s absolutely insane. Now with the traffic every delivery takes three times longer than before,” said Mr Cerati.

Despite the growth in the organic food business, Mr Cerati believes that organic farming will only enjoy rapid expansion when the government shows an interest in the sector.

“The government needs to put in place laws and regulations, labs and extension services,” he said. As in many sectors in Myanmar, the potential is enormous. “This country is blessed with good soil, perfect weather conditions, much better than Thailand. They have mountains, they have flatlands on the mountains. They have a lot of water. But the farmers are poor and everyone realises the problem is at the government level.”


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