black&white #48: The awe-inspiring story of Phyu Thwe and the Mogok Tea company
Last year we wrote about The Leafies, the first International Tea Academy Awards launched by the UK Tea Academy. The Award Ceremony was an afternoon of fabulous tea and inspiring stories of people who are producing sustainable, ethical and utterly delicious tea around the world – and often against the odds. One of the stand out winners was Phyu Thwe and her company Mogok Tea in Myanmar.
Phyu Thwe, founder of the Mogok Tea company, was a standout winner at The Leafies.
Their Black Ruby won Gold in our Black Natural category and their green tea Tiny Green Temple won Highly Commended. And Phyu herself won the Tea for Life Special Award, for her work regenerating her local village in Myanmar and empowering the people who work with Mogok. We spoke to her about the challenges she faces attempting to uplift the welfare of her community against impossible odds including civil war.
“I live in London and I’m an accountant by trade and a few years ago my career started to take off. I was eating in fancy restaurants in London and not worrying about the bill. Lots of my friends in the industry were becoming tax advisors, doubling their usual accountant’s salary. And I came to a bit of a crossroads in my career. I asked myself, what do I want from life?”
For Phyu, it was a lightning bolt moment. “I want to look after my family and my community. I want to create something that will last and offer a better quality of life. And that’s when it hit me. I can rejuvenate the tea plantation on my family’s land.”
Tea in Myanmar, while widely produced, has a very low value there as it’s given free to customers in restaurants. “We are a tea-producing country but we don’t export it. So I thought maybe if I go into high grade tea production I can provide some better opportunities for my village.”
Phyu Thwe working at her tea factory in Mogok, Myanmar.
Local jobs around the Mogok area are limited – and there’s a lot of unemployment. “The local industry is mining, which is highly destructive from an environmental point of view – and exploitative from a labour one. A lot of people go to work in China or Thailand – or even go to a country and find themselves illegal immigrants – and then end up in exploitative workplaces. I thought: a well-run tea plantation could help retain the younger generations and create good job opportunities.”
The first thing Phyu did was learn. “I studied. I learnt everything I could about tea and the production process. And it was through the UK Tea Academy that I met Jane and Beverly.” Phyu is referring, of course, to the inimitable Jane Pettigrew (co-founder and Director of Studies at the UKTA) and Beverly Wainwright (UKTA trainer, independent tea consultant and owner of the Scottish Tea Factory). Both are top experts in their fields.
“I actually gave Jane some of the tea we were producing in our village. And she was very kind and said that it was okay but could be improved. And after doing a couple of modules of their Tea Master course, I realised she was right. It was crap!”
After that, Phyu travelled with Beverly to Sri Lanka to learn more about how a small-scale artisan tea factory worked in practice. After that, she was off – and the tea factory in Mogok was built in a matter of weeks.
It hasn’t been easy. Mogok officially started in 2019 – and it took them a year to experiment and produce a tea that met the high standards Phyu had set for herself and her team. And then COVID hit. “It was unlucky, it was very bad timing. Just as we had a product that was good enough to ship to the rest of the world, everything shut down.”
Aerial shot of Phyu's tea factory and the plantation, nestled in the hills of Mogok, Myanmar.
Incredibly, Phyu made the decision to continue to pay her team throughout the pandemic out of her own pocket, even though they weren’t selling her tea. “I was working 18 hour days to pay the wages. It was hard but I wanted to do it – this is money for my family and the rest of the village to eat, to live, to everything.”
Phyu also offers exemplary working conditions and employee benefits for Myanmar – including weekends and paid holiday and medical bills.
After the pandemic, business started to improve. But it was only in September of last year that Mogok Teas started to break even – and Phyu didn’t have to cover wages. “I now have buyers in Belgium, America, the Netherlands, the UK – everywhere! And of course, winning The Leafies really helped sales, which was amazing.”
For Phyu, the sky’s the limit. “I want to build local infrastructure in Mogok, improve the landscape and environment, and run educational programmes, helping other communities in Myanmar set up sustainable tea businesses.”
It is, quite frankly, an awe-inspiring story. And it’s no wonder Phyu was the clear winner in the Tea for Life Special Award category. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and full of emotion as she spoke about the hardship and trauma her community had gone through as a result of the ongoing civil war in Myanmar – and how tea growing had offered some respite in a region ravaged by conflict. You can watch the full award ceremony here.
So, what’s next for this inspirational humanitarian, entrepreneur and award-winning tea producer? She wants to keep doing good, growing extraordinary teas, uplifting her community and building a viable and successful tea business in Myanmar.
Canton customers will soon be able to buy the award-winning Black Ruby tea and Tiny Green Temple as part of our new limited edition range. You’ll be the first to know so watch this space as it really is small batch and in limited supply.