What does that have to do with the price of tea?

Tea snobs, possibly

Tea snobs may have found the Philippine delegation, tucked away in one corner of the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council Tea Fair exhibition hall, laughable especially after seeing hundreds of tea sellers from around the world.

With no tea culture to speak of, Philippine exhibitors were offering civet coffee, tropical fruit preserves, biscuits, and sardines. These were products that the HKTDC set apart in a section of the hall devoted to “Friends of Tea,” a sort of catch-all category for stalls selling things vaguely related to tea.

But that is the point of global marketplaces that trade fairs are supposed to be. Filipinos can belatedly blame Spain for cultivating a love of coffee instead of tea. Or thank her for making us one of the few countries that produce all four kinds of commercial coffee beans.

Tea is slowly gaining adherents in the Philippines (your correspondent included) but Rupali Datta of Tea Board India says we remain a negligible market. Hasitha De Alvis, director for promotions of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, does do business with the Philippines but he says tea consumption in the country is still largely through bottled tea-based drinks and through specialized cafes.

The Philippines can, of course, grow tea even if it is alien to our shores. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency can just as easily devote captured marijuana plantations to tea growing as it can to growing mulberry trees for silkworms as its former chief, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto has repeatedly suggested.

But what would be the point? China already has hundreds of tea growers steeped in centuries of tea cultivation. Even with a unique selling proposition like New Zealand’s organic Zealong oolong teas (even the animal manure they use for fertilizer comes from animals raised organically), it will be incredibly difficult to break into the tea trade, faced as it is with a potential glut that has the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations urging top producers to spur domestic consumption.

Even our herbal tea infusions with their supposed medicinal properties will meet stiff opposition in China especially with a government campaign to promote traditional Chinese medicine around the world.

Mary Grace Young, who promoted her Kape Musang civet coffee (kapemusang.com) at the fair, says there was a lot of interest in her coffee as well as in the other products that her company, Cordillera Products, carries. A booth selling tropical fruit jams was also doing brisk business.

Young complains, though, that the high cost of getting her coffee certified organic has kept her business from growing. She does have Philippine certification but an internationally-recognized vetting from the Organic Crop Improvement Association, for example, would make Kape Musang a stronger brand.

And this is where the RP government can step in. Policy makers could help entrepreneurs trading products we have experience growing and selling get international recognition instead of trying to ride the latest trendy product (like jatropha) that we don’t have the knowledge and infrastructure to make yet. That makes more sense than forcing ourselves into a market that isn’t quite our cup of tea.

(Sidebar to coverage of the HKTDC Tea Fair 2010 for ChinaBusiness Philippines, October 2010)

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