Food that not only tastes good but is grown without chemicals? Waimar Min Thu and May Thu talk about all natural farming and their fresh food delivery venture Mya Chemical Free.
Once while passing by a semi-industrial area just north of Yangon, I caught a terrifying glimpse at urban farming: blackened ponds of market-bound watercress and morning glory lapping against factory walls. The sight gave me pause to think. What exactly is in that water? And the follow-up: OMG, I’m eating factory water greens.
The shock gradually wore down to a state of self-imposed amnesia, but alarm bells continued ringing among a small but growing segment of Myanmar’s households, entrepreneurs, and and also the Myanmar Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association (MFVP), which offers training courses on good agricultural practices and organic certification for produce.
Mya Chemical Free is one venture, planting cleaner and chemical-free produce. Started in December 2014 by Panzar ‘Pan’ Phyu, Ei Khin Khin, and Zaw Min Aung, Mya Chemical Free grows fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices without any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Produce is ordered online and delivered directly to households. Waimar Min Thu and May Thu joined the team of directors in April.
Three of Mya Chemical Free’s farms belong to May Thu’s family, who had previously used the land for their father’s hobby growing flowers. The switch came abruptly when “one day, my family was making dinner, and the vegetables tasted funny and bitter. My parents said, ‘Why are we buying this from the market when we can grow them ourselves?’”
Not only did May Thu’s family begin growing their own vegetables three years ago, they also firmly decided against using pesticides and synthetic fertilisers on their land as a reaction to the produce found at markets. Sharing food, safely grown in a traditional way with the Yangon community, is what drew her to joining the company.
“When we eat conventional fruit, our bodies don’t recognise the pesticides, so it doesn’t know whether to fight against it or adapt to it. If it’s natural, then the body recognises it,” said May Thu. That’s the main reason for chemical free.”
The company emphasises being “chemical free”, not organic, though Mya Chemical Free is on the path towards organic certification by MFVP. A major requirement is having chemical-free soil and water for at least three years to rid them of any trace chemicals lingering from past harvests. As further prevention against contamination, the company makes a point of digging six inches into the earth, laying agricultural film down, and filling the trenches with naturally treated soil. Farmers also use untreated window screen or mosquito net-like material to construct greenhouses that prevent pests and grow wind-shielding plants, like lemongrass, along farm boundaries to block any pesticide contamination from neighboring farms.
Though MFVP certification is a step in the right direction for Myanmar, it is not recognised internationally. Thus, the company is also considering stricter certification for organic farming that would allow fruit and vegetable export to Europe and the US.
Organic or not, naturally grown produce is “an investment you put into your body. It’s not a short-term investment, it’s a very long term investment,” said Waimar. “One of the reasons why I joined is, last year my dad’s health was declining, he was in a very bad state. After I started working here, I only cooked with chemical free produce. His health really improved. His cholesterol and blood pressure dropped. There’s nothing more important than your health.”
Admittedly, Mya Chemical Free’s products are more expensive than those at the wet market and grocery stores, but the products truly are not the same. From the taste, smell, freshness, natural way of growing, and its environmental impact, Mya Chemical Free’s tomato is not simply a tomato.
Case in point: mutant kaffir limes, some nearly as big as a human head, with a fantastic perfume, and better than anything I have had from the market. Customers can also buy sweet pineapples, juicy honeydew, yellow peppers, avocados, and beefsteak tomatoes from May Thu’s and Pan’s family farms in Pyin Oo Lwin and Hlegu.
Mya Chemical Free also contracts four small-scale farmers, who “produce small-scale amounts,” said May Thu. “If they’re busy on the farm, there’s no time to come to market and find the right clients. So we contact them and say we’ll take your produce and make a market for them.”
Keeping them motivated has been a challenge. “Some of them are thinking of giving up on chemical free farming because it’s costly and time consuming and the market is still small, but we convinced them to keep growing, and we take some items even if they don’t sell, like romaine lettuce. Myanmar people don’t know how to use it, but we still have to take a large quantity,” said Waimar.
Land preservation is an important reason for planting naturally. Waimar continued, “Once you go chemical free, it’s not just for your body, it’s also for the soil. Because once you put a lot of chemicals and pesticides in the soil, give or take ten years, you cannot grow anything anymore. The land becomes useless.”
“With no trees in the soil, the weather changes,” May Thu added. The destructive flood this past rainy season has postponed many of their crop’s seasons. As Waimar described it, Mother Nature can be their best friend or greatest enemy.
Once picked, fruits and vegetables are transported directly to Mya Chemical Free’s Yangon office several times a week to ensure optimal ripeness and freshness. Orders are placed through the company’s website; deliveries are made within two business days to private residences on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Hotels and restaurants, such as Sharky’s, District Coffee, Acacia, and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, receive orders daily.
“We don’t have a subscription; we’re still a young business. To stay in this game, we have to give good service. We send out our list every month to our customers, and we don’t have a minimum order because 30,000 Ks [their original order minimum] was a lot of veggies to finish. You only need to pay for delivery fees,” explained Waimar.
Mya Chemical Free has a reliable delivery service and great return policy on damaged goods, but if picking your own tickles your fancy, stop by La Carovana Market every Saturday, where the team has a standing booth.
Mya Chemical Free’s first year of operation has been all about learning from how to farm chemical free to creating a website and managing deliveries.
Waimar said, “Most of the things we learned from MFVP, such as lectures on how to take care of your farms and natural fertilizers. For the first three months, I knew nothing about fruits and vegetables; I didn’t even know that tomatoes are fruit!”
“None of us graduated from agricultural school. We just Google and read,” chimed in May Thu. “Our family didn’t believe that we can start this company. They thought we were just playing.”
With a team of five directors and two delivery staff, there is certainly no room for play if the company seeks to expand.
“It’s a start-up. Everyone has to work,” said Waimar. “May Thu does paperwork and accounting. I do the website. One director works on logistics, another on operations and looking after farms and storage, and Pan works on HR and marketing.”
“This is a new beginning for all of us,” she continued. “We have to learn everything. We have a good policy: When you’re given a good opportunity, just take it, you can learn it later. Working is the best way.”
To shop for Shan tea, turmeric from May Thu’s farm, giant cucumbers, dragon fruit, and other fruits and vegetables, visit their webpage or their stall at La Carovana’s Saturday Market.
Mya Chemical Free
La Carovana Market
22 Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, Bahan Township
Every Saturday 12:00 to 5:00 PM