ROCKSTAR FOOD & DRINK
Experience Myanmars’ Best Kept Secret
Entrepreneur cousins Jack Shaw and Harry Carr-Ellison have created a wonderful ethical platform that is helping to bring the exquisite tasting fermented tea salad and green tea from the hills of Shan State, Myanmar (once known as Burma) to the international market.
The Lost Tea Company is collaborating with various NGO and charitable organisations to improve sustainability, ecological benefits and transparent development. This is a very important aspect for the two business men, and something they strive for, especially as they work with a collective of farmers in a developing country.
We had an insightful conversation with Managing Director Harry and UK Manager Jack, to find out more about the partnership, how this project began and their hopes for the future. Read more
Harry – I first came to Myanmar in May 2015, this was to work for an Executive Search company, VCS. A company who still operate locally. After seeing the job advertised I started reading up about the country, there was no going back from there.
Harry – After leaving university I took a trip to Sri Lanka, I spent some time among tea plantations and realised what a special product it was. When I returned to the UK I spent 6 months (while also working on a farm in Northumberland) emailing/contacting tea companies asking for a job. Finally, a company called Mufindi Tea Company based in Tanzania offered me a research position.
Why tea in Myanmar? When I was working for the recruitment company in Yangon, I drank a lot of the local green tea and ate vast amounts of fermented tea salad ‘Lahpet thoke’ (actually for the first few weeks or so, I didn’t even realise it was tea leaves in the salad….), and I loved it. It amazed me that such a delicious tea and truly unique dish wasn’t used more by the international community. I am not just talking about exporting the tea itself, but I realised that a lot of the hotels, and restaurants within the country didn’t stock or sell the products, it amazed me that some tourists would come to Myanmar and never even try a tea leaf salad! My concept of selling locally was/is never about creating competition for my suppliers but more for trying to create a new international market for them.
What are your business objectives/what is your business plan?
Harry – To create a profitable business whilst helping to build a sustainable international market for smallholder Myanmar tea, both drinking and edible.
Jack – Our aim is to also grow people’s awareness of Lahpet and the delicate taste of Burmese green tea, so we can help as many smallholder farmers as we can.
How big do you want to grow “Lost Tea” – what are your aspirations?
Harry – Both Jack and I are very driven, and as long as it is sustainable and we do not compromise either our ethics or those of the farmers we work with, then I envisage big things.
Jack – Our aspirations are to be stocked in supermarkets with a range of Burmese products, giving people a taste of Myanmar’s rich and high quality ingredients.
So, is the Holy Grail to supply Waitrose [or a major supermarket chain?]
Harry – Eventually that would be nice, however, we are happy approaching/working with independents for the time being. Other entrepreneurs are more likely to help and can be enthusiastic especially whilst explaining your products to their customers, this is important with something as unique as edible tea.
Jack – Eventually yes, Waitrose and Wholefoods are our target but not in the near future.
Do you export your products outside of the UK?
Harry – Currently we sell locally (within Myanmar – hotels, restaurants, tourist shops) and export to the UK. We have plans to sell elsewhere in South East Asia, specifically Singapore.
How many farmers do you have producing for you?
Harry – 30 smallholder farmers, 3-5 acre farms.
How many people do you employ directly?
Harry – At the minute it is just Jack and I. Everyone else is brought in on a short-term contract/consultancy basis.
Can you retain your core values / support fair-trade etc. if you scale up successfully?
Harry – This is a very important aspect for us, and something we really strive for, especially as we are working with a collective of farmers in a developing country. The Lost Tea Company is collaborating with various NGO and charitable organisations to improve sustainability, ecological benefits and transparent development.
Global warming/climate change threatens the cacao tree and associated chocolate production – what is the outlook for tea in Myanmar, any concerns?
Harry – There are concerns, however, as mentioned above we are working in collaboration with larger corporations and NGO’s in order to get advice on this subject.
How stable it Myanmar? Any political risk?
Harry – There is risk, especially in a country that has numerous internal conflicts, one of which is within the state we source our tea. However, there is a real drive from local people to increase foreign investment, this in turn creates a safer and more stable working environment.
Would it be safer to source from multiple countries to mitigate risks [political, environmental, water/disease to tea plants etc.?] Any plans?
Harry – We have no plans to source from anywhere else. With the issues that the country has been through, I think it is paramount to show commitment to the people who have been so welcoming to me, not to mention shown genuine kindness, honesty, and generosity. I have been fortunate to have lived, worked and traveled to many countries but never experienced anything like it.
Jack – It probably would be safer yes. But one of the main aims of the business is to promote Myanmar and Burmese goods so we have no plans at the moment.
How Old Are You?
Jack – 26
Harry – 27
What did you want to be when you were at school?
Jack – Farmer
Harry – Football Player for Newcastle United
Did you go to university and if so, what did you study?
Harry – Yes, Oxford Brookes – Anthropology
Jack – Yes, financial maths and then agriculture.
How would you describe your job/role now?
Harry – Managing director, Myanmar. Role includes product development, quality control, Marketing, sales – Asia and UK
Jack – UK Manager so I handle the logistics and sales in the UK, but being a director also I have a hands on role with major decisions and the direction of the company.
How did you meet?
Harry – Jack is my cousin.
Describe your journey from your initial meeting to owning a business together?
Harry – Jack replaced various people I had helping me beforehand. I was struggling to successfully manage both the Myanmar and UK sides effectively, which was starting to have a negative impact on the company and causing me increasing stress. Jack changed this, starting initially by alleviating some of the issues he very soon became an integral part of the company. Having Jack as a fulltime business partner has made a huge difference, from day to day job satisfaction to developing a much more efficient business.
Jack – We were always pretty close as cousins as we went to school together, share a lot of the same interests and we’ve been travelling together so I’d probably describe Harry as more of a brother than a cousin.
How we ended up as business partners is in 2017 I had come back to the UK from Australia where I was working on various farms trying to get experience, and Harry was heading back to Myanmar after a summer of product development in the UK. Harry was struggling for staff in the UK so when he asked me if I could send out the online orders when he got them I obliged. Then he asked if I could pack some more product when he sent the tea from Myanmar, and then he asked me if I could cover for him at a Christmas fair. I had always backed him and thought selling green tea and edible tea from Myanmar was a great idea, so when my voluntary role was snowballing into something more serious, I jumped at the chance to come on board. This meant Harry could spend more time out in Myanmar working with our farmers and building the market out there, without spreading himself too thin between the UK and Myanmar.
Do you drink coffee?
Harry – As much as I love tea, I couldn’t be without the occasional strong coffee.
Jack – Yes, I still need one cup to kickstart my day. I used to have 5 or 6 coffees but now a couple pots of green tea keep me going throughout the day.
What is on your bucket list?
Harry – Climb Mount Hkakabo Razi, Myanmar’s highest mountain.
As well as walk the ancient Tea Horse road, a network of caravan paths winding through the mountains of Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet. It was an important tea trade route and cuts through the top of Myanmar.
Jack – To travel to the Arctic Circle, and to convince my dad (a very stubborn Yorkshireman) that you don’t have to have vast amounts of milk and sugar to enjoy tea. I think the first point is more attainable!
I recently tried open water swimming for the first time – are there good opportunities in Myanmar?
Jack – If by ‘open swimming’ you mean ‘wild swimming’ then it is possible! I suggest visiting the website Frontier Mynamer, which details in depth a variety of wild water swimming possibilities. Some beautiful examples are Loikaw, a highly underrated destination and home to the Seven Stages Lake, the Southern Shan State and the Inya Kan; a town famous for its sacred caves but the beautiful natural lake is set in rolling farmland.
How I Experienced the Lost Tea Company
I’ve tasted the Lost Tea Company’s products on a number of occasions however this time I took it one step further and took a tin with me on my recent Mount Kilimanjaro ascent.
A perfectly exquisite tea to accompany such breath-taking views.
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