Why tea producers in Lao PDR are looking for help with their products


Vientiane, 9/April/2018 – As the country is set for graduating from Least Developed Country status, we are looking into how Lao PDR’s own people are, one by one, contributing to developing their country. This time, we are focusing on tea, a field of production currently abuzz with activity.

“I recently realised that growing tea has a direct link to reducing global warming” – this rather surprising statement comes from Ms. Vansy Sengsouliya, Founder and President of Meung Mountains Wild Forest Tea. “Allow me to explain”, she smiles at my dumbfounded expression. “Akha and Lahou ethnic groups in Bokeo Province in Northwestern Laos have been planting tea for generations. Recently, the pressure from investors has grown to convert these areas into banana plantations or cut the trees in order to grow rice. Since establishing my business in 2015, I have been working with 21 such families who want to stick with their tea-growing traditions, ensuring additional income for their families and the safeguarding of biodiversity in our country – which in turn has a direct impact on the environment. My tea production group now has its own factory for black and green tea, with 40 employees.”

Vansy is not the only one feeling the pressure, struggling to ensure an old tradition makes its way into international markets. Ms. Khambolisout Sakda, the President of the Paksong Tea Producers’ Group from Champasak Province in the South of Laos shares her two biggest worries.  “Our tea planting areas under pressure from investors, and we are finding it very hard to counter the hard cash they are bringing. I am trying to raise awareness among local tea growing families, to create an understanding that the potential for growing tea is only just rising, and a steady income will be possible if we don’t give in to those alluring quick bucks. But with many of the young people taking off to work in Thailand, who will be left to do the work? I would love to expand the business, but how can I, under these circumstances?” Khambolisout works with ten families, catering mainly to French customers, both via local tourism and internet sales. She complains that even though her tea is popular in Italy, she cannot produce enough to meet the demand.

Both ladies recently spent some time in Vientiane, to attend a series of tea-infused events. The Lao National Chamber for Commerce and Industry, in partnership with UNDP in the Brand Lao project, ran a workshop and seminar to share insights about how European markets may be accessed by Lao tea producers.

“China is the big player in tea. Laos is unknown as a tea producing country,” says Mr. Duncan McDonald, European Tea Sales Expert. “The fact that producers from Laos tend to be small by international standards can actually be an advantage, because the trend in European sales is towards good quality single origin teas. The consumer wants to feel they are buying directly from the producer, not from a global corporation, and is looking for a product that is truly authentic and has a connection with the place and community it is grown in.”

Ms. Manichanh Phonekeo, owner of the Phayasee Tea Factory in Phongsaly Province knows the value of small. “Small is good. Small is organic. I have only five employees and a small factory. But it’s not easy. I sell my green and red teas mainly to China, but because my tea comes from organic production, it is more expensive than Chinese types. Also, I have not found a way yet to package my tea here in the country, so I am buying boxes from China. And the tea expert that I am employing is Chinese, too.”

Many small producers can become one big fish when joining forces, knows Duncan: “The Chamber and UNDP are jointly proposing the creation of a tea association, to act just like a major producer would, to enter the foreign markets with impact, and reap the benefits of economies of scale.” Rather than just exporting tea as a bulk commodity, Duncan continues to explain, the Lao way could be to target high-end customers willing to pay for the story behind their tea, and for quality, ethical and food safety standards.

The story is exactly what Manichanh is interested to tell. “I have just participated in the Made in Laos 2018 Fair here in Vientiane. Even local customers were asking questions about the people behind the tea box. Which inspired me to do more of this. As a next step, I’d like to learn how to tell these stories on social media, and then, inch our way into the international market.”  

The Brand Lao initiative – a joint effort by the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry and UNDP aims exactly at this: to add value to traditional products and make sure that a part of the benefit reaches the producers. Through their own efforts, these tea producers are contributing to Lao PDR’s path towards a bright and sustainable future. After all, development is everybody’s cup of tea. 

What's in your cup?

Tea connoisseurs know the difference between tea types.
Black, green, white, red… but do you?
If you are as confused by these terms as we are, read on.

White tea is practically unprocessed tea, where only the leaf bud is picked.  
Green tea leaves are first wilted and then heated to retain their green colour.
Black tea is picked young, dried, rolled and heated. 
Red tea means completely dried tea leaves. 
Oolong/Wulong tea requires a more complex process of production, with several steps involved.

All of the above tea types are produced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis tea bush.
In Laos, tea leaves are typically harvested from wild or semi-wild trees, grown from wild seeds.
Wild tea trees can grow up to a height of 20 metres, whereas tea plantations usually contain low bushes. Harvesting the leaves is a labour
intensive process most usually done by women in Laos.
In natural tea gardens, one person can pick about 10 kg of fresh leaves a day.

Tea culture is relatively young in Laos. In the 19th century, ethnic groups like the Akha and the Hmong brought
tea drinking into Laos from China. Traditionally, tea is enjoyed hot and without condiments.
Lao cuisine appreciates bitter flavours for their medicinal effect, and – in areas where tea grows – tea leaves aresometimes eaten in traditional Laap salads or fermented in clay jars and then chewed as a mild stimulant or used as a condiment.

Please read this article in Lao.

Contact information
Ms. Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo, Communications Specialist, UN in Lao PDR: Tel: 021 267 778, 020 7717 7913, 
Email: ildiko.hamos@one.un.org

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