Our managing director shares his story of success with the Myanmar Times.
U Myo Win Aung, managing director of Ya Thar Wa Thi, makers of Shan Shwe Taung pickled tea leaf and Paline organic tea leaf in Shan State, envisions selling its products around the world.
“Although it is just a family business, we want to become a huge company that proudly sells Myanmar tea internationally,”
Myo Win Aung said in a recent interview.
Ya Thar Wa Thi, run by Myo Win Aung and his wife, produces spicy and sour pickled tea leaves under the Shoo Shell brand. The company prides itself on producing original and organic tea from the Shan highlands. It was the first tea company to receive an organic certificate in Myanmar and among the first to export Myanmar tea.
We produce Paline organic tea leaf as a value-added product using organic ingredients. We also make fried lab-lab beans, nuts and seeds to eat with pickled tea leaves. We only use walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, chick peas, and garlic from Myanmar,” he said.
How did you get started?
We are the second generation. Our family has worked in this business for 40 years. Our parents opened a tea wholesale business in northern Myanmar. I came up with the “Shoo Shell” pickled tea packaging. At that time, no one could sell such packs at K50 each. The brand became popular within two to three years. We started packing it by hand, but when demand soared, we started using machines to expand production. Many traders were in the pickled tea business before me, but I didn’t imitate others – I created my own business idea.
How did you win recognition for the brand?
We had to go from one small shop to another to introduce our brand. I was the manufacturer as well as the marketing manager. To sell those packs at K50 each, we had to give retailers K29-30 per pack. People from all walks of life liked the taste of Shoo Shell. When the demand became high, others imitated our product, but customers preferred our brand. Competition made us try harder, which led to better sales.
Is your product healthy for consumers?
Some people say that pickled tea for the local market is of higher quality than for the foreign market. But we don’t do that. All people – local or foreign – are the same. Food safety is important. Everything we produce is recognised by Myanmar’s Food and Drug Administration, and we have the internationally recognised Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points certificate.
Also, the Myanmar Tea Association offers education programmes. When consumers demanded healthy food products, only tea producers stopped using unhealthy preservatives in 2013.
How do you guarantee the quality of your tea?
We grow tea on about 300 acres in partnership with about 150 farmers. These plantations have been granted European-recognised organic certification. Farmers provide us with land and buildings, and we provide them with machinery and technology, and a pledge to buy their tea.
Our farmers must follow rules to ensure an organic product. They cannot use insecticides and chemical fertilisers. They constantly tend the plants to produce more leaves and use organic fertiliser. We provide all financial and technical support. We offer them 30 percent above the market price so that they can supply the quality we specify. In this way, both the farmers and the company make a profit.
Do you have any problems finding workers?
Our tea plantations are in southern Shan, which is a peaceful region. As the economy is stable, labour shortages have not been a problem because people don’t need to go other places to look for work.
Do you have any problems with imitators?
Yes. We need an Intellectual Property Law as soon as possible and are upset that such a law is still not in place. Although we try hard, some competitors copy our packaging and brand names. We lose a lot of money to fake products even though they are obvious imitations. They damage the reputation of Myanmar.
Is there much demand in foreign markets?
We opened the first tea leaf shop in China, the Myanmar Tea Garden, with three partners, and I’ve introduced green tea leaves in the market. One of my business partners is trying to get into the market with green tea, and another with black tea and milk tea. I was the first to export tea leaves to the US and have been exporting for three years now. The buyer in San Francisco packages it as “Burma Super Star,” and supplies it to organic food outlets across the US. They recently told us they would buy up to four containers of tea leaves a year, which have a capacity of 17 tonnes each.
How are you trying to penetrate China?
They do not eat tea leaf salad in China, but every street in China has dumpling stands, so we came up with the idea of tea leaf dumplings, which are stuffed with tea leaves instead of vegetables. Then, there’s fermented bean paste in China, which they mix with rice, so we introduced pickled tea leaf rice.
Our tea leaf shop has been open for over a year in China, and we participated in an annual trade fair. Trying to get into the Chinese market is tiring, and we have had to spend a lot of money. If I succeed, it would be much easier for those who follow.
What help do you need from the government?
While the government does support tea leaf producers at foreign expos, it does not subsidise tea leaf farmers, companies and small businesses, which are struggling on their own. Some non-governmental organisations help but just with technical stuff, not with money. The government should help us in research and development, and food technology. We also want technology and financial support for SMEs. We want the government to teach sustainable tea leaf growing in places like Shan State to make farmers and producers more proficient.