Over three billion people

worldwide consume this beverage, which is considered liquid gold or black gold. Legend has it that, the leaves from a nearby tea bush or tree had wafted through the air and made its way into the cup filled with boiling water meant for Emperor Shen Nong of China’s Tang dynasty. Subsequently the water had changed colour, exuded an aroma and was refreshing. The discovery had led to China’s monopoly on its trade routes but it was the British who promulgated tea throughout the empire which
spanned the globe. During its zenith, the might of the empire laid hold of the tea plant which was tried and tested in many of its colonies. The coffee blight in Ceylon, spawned the tea industry with its first plant taking root in the cool climes of Kandy in the Central region which was planted and cared for by the industrious James Taylor in Loolecondera Estate. The first crates filled with tea made its way to the harbor on the backs of majestic elephants and bullock carts through winding hills and valleys,
creating a buzz amid the high echelons of British society who added value to it by establishing the traditional high tea embraced as an unique definition of the English. Burgeoning English societies and the aristocracy itself, with Queen Victoria at the helm stamped its seal of approval, making Ceylon tea the most sought after commodity.

Fast forward 150 years and where does Ceylon tea stand?

Roshan Rajadura ,Managing Director of Hayleys Plantations PLC with over 30 years of experience in the tea trade gave us an insight into its operations through the eyes of a leading tea manufacturing company. Commencing his career as a Planter, Roshan’s greatest wish is to improve the quality of life of the plantation workers.

We are completely dependent on the global market with prices varying according to demand and supply

Tea in a global setting

“In Sri Lanka, Tea is an export driven industry, with 95% of our products being exported to various parts of the world. Therefore, we are completely dependent on the global market with prices varying according to demand and supply. During the British colonial era Ceylon Tea held a monopoly which was undisputed. While the British had already established tea plantations in India, the nationalization of our estates prompted them to invest in Africa (predominantly Kenya). This has led
to severe competition with Sri Lanka, Kenya and India vying for supremacy in the trade. While the operations in India and Sri Lanka are similar, the labour cost in Kenya is considerably lower with the unions being less authoritative and demanding, thus making it a cost effective commodity. With the introduction of the global village concept allowing a more lenient entry into the market, we have also seen Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mozambique and other countries emerging as ompetitors in the sphere.  As well, countries which are still part of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada were largely a tea drinking population until coffee acceded as the most favoured beverage among the populace,” said he.

Change of dynamics

“The dynamics of the Sri Lankan industry too has changed with 76% of tea being produced by Tea Small Holders from the Sabaragamuwa and Ruhuna Province. The organized estate sector produces an estimated 23% of tea.”

Productivity-wage based model – Tea Small Holders

“Around 80% of the tea small holders operating in the low country own less than two (02) acres of land each. The masked difference in their operation is the leniency afforded to them as they have less to no overheads. While an estimate of 40%-50% harvest their own plot of land, others work at will or as required, which does not restrain the workers who are paid Rs.30 per kilo and pluck a minimum of 20kg-30kg within a few hours. It is considered a win-win situation as wages are paid based on productivity, with most owners increasing their plots within the last twenty five years as this model has proven to be successful.”

Attendance wage based model-Organized sector

“As an organized sector, we abide by a plethora of rules and statutes which are over a hundred years old. We have to conform to many regulations such as the labour laws of the country,
minimum wage and more, which are rigid yardstick used to measure the organized estate sector. We are mandated to give 300 days of work, irrespective of the various issues that rise such as the fluctuations in crops and profit. Moreover, we have to placate the unions who have been controlling the tight-knit communities that live in the estates. The unions which rose to power in the early 80’s were considered sacrosanct and infallible with the people blindly following the leaders due to limited
access to information and resources. Initially this was promptly capitalized by corrupt officials and political entities. With the advancement of technology, the younger generations have access to information and able integrate and socialize with all classes of society island wide. This has resulted in an increase in out-migrations and posed a significant dearth in the number of
labourers who are willing to pluck tea. In the past, tea plucking was not regarded as a lucrative trade with many employees remaining in the lower end of the spectrum – caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty until the introduction of humane laws which raised the income generation and other benefits. The wages in the organized sector, with its resident workforce is solely
based on attendance, with a tea plucked working eight hours shifts inclusive of intermittent breaks. Yet, during the hours of work, the capacity plucked

Steady stream of pluckers have to work on rotation basis but the challenge faced by the organized sector is the shortage in

even amid cool conditions is often 18kg per employee which creates severe gaps in productivity and profit. We also provide numerous benefits for our employees such as health care and child care among others and the established infrastructure and clauses cater to the employees welfare with a strong social support system from the ‘womb to the tomb’. In addition to the
benefits provided by the companies, the government per se provides housing to the workers. In addition we have to ensure the
workforce is motivated through various schemes and contend with promises made by various ruling parties during the election period as it upsets the equilibrium of the workforce. In keeping with the consumer requirements, with global awareness
and environment friendly products gaining top priority, the Tea industry has obtained the most amount of certifications within the main industries of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we adhere to the stringent measures required to obtain the global certifications and licenses which adds to the overall cost. This model which is detrimental to the political entities and unions in
the region is either bound to remain stagnant or fail in the near future as it is as old as the tea industry itself. It worked in the empirical realm when the British controlled the supply and distribution, yet it is ludicrous to continue thus with the onset of socioeconomic change. Change is inevitable and it should be implemented for the sustainability of the trade.”

Winds of change

“Unlike many other products, tea has to be plucked constantly to ensure the consistency in production, thus a steady stream of pluckers have to work on rotation basis but the challenge faced by the organized sector is the shortage in labour. This can be countered with the Revenue Share Model (RSM) which we introduced as an opportunity to enhance their earnings and break
away from the unionized stranglehold which threatens to mar the growth potential. The RSM allows the employee to maintain an allocated crop and earn more within the estate itself. The unions which are threatened by this new approach have caused a reluctance in the workers who are resistant to change but we have also seen certain individuals who are keen to explore new
prospects. While the wages of a tea plucked are increased every two years, the tea prices are less and the labour productivity has lessened due to the reluctance of many who wish to pursue this task as a career. While the whole community have and are rising above the poverty line, tea plucking is still considered the lower rung in terms of employment and these perceptions
need to change drastically for the youth to step in. The whole industry has to band together to produce our premium quality tea, which is still favoured worldwide and should be capitalized by the tea exporters through extensive promotions and marketing campaigns in order to strengthen the existing markets and explore new opportunities,” concluded Roshan.

Setting the wheels in motion –  Implementation of the 2030 Way Forward Initiative

Following the production of tea is the vital aspect played by our Brokers – Anil Cook, Managing Director/ Executive Director of Asia Siyaka Commodities PLC and a Committee member of the Ceylon Tea Traders Association – the Apex body of the Tea industry. One of the primary functions of the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association is the management of the Colombo Tea Auction, which it has handled, without a break, since 1894. The first undertaking of this Association, on being formed in 1894, was to review the loose collection of rules under which the auction of tea had been conducted, hitherto, so as to ensure the orderly and efficient operation of the auction. On November 1, 1894, recommendations on the “Rules of the Conditions of Sale”,
were ratified. Thus, the By-Laws and Conditions for the Sale of Tea by Public Auction came into formal existence. This set of By-Laws and Conditions for the Sale of Tea by Public Auction, which was later extended to include the Sale of Tea by Private Treaty, by which the auction is regulated, has been reviewed and updated by the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association, at regular intervals, to provide a stable, reliable and credible procedure for the sale of Tea and to meet the requirements of the changing circumstances of the Trade, with the progressive increase in production volumes and the development of the Tea Industry “The
world at large has continuously faced crisis and the Tea industry per se has been pounded by various issues such as climate change, political and financial setbacks and more but it does prevail. The tea industry has had to endure various onslaughts resulting from the weakening of the Russian economy to the Iranian sanctions, Japan’s change in policies on tea, the drop in global prices, the inability of our tea estates to break even in key markets among others which have been detrimental to
the trade. This has prompted us to sustain the industry through the implementation of the ten year plan, which is the
2030 Way Forward Initiative. Through this designated platform, we will be looking to accelerating the processes pertaining to Sustainability, Research & Development, Quality, Processing and Branding & Marketing of the overall tea industry. These are critical factors which need to be addressed. Some of the steps which are set in motion is the research, which will enable us
to take measures to produce drought resistance plants, to develop the existing markets and promote our tea to all corners of the world.” Since each stake holder is vital for the smooth running of one of Sri Lanka’s largest commodities, we were privy to
the bulk exporting landscape through the eyes of Ravi Gunaratne, Director of the prestigious Anverally & Sons – With a global reach of 85 countries, Anverally & Sons is one of the leading exporters of bulk tea. “I cannot say that exporting bulk is easy as currently the situation in the local industry is critical with the downsizing of production and crops in the 1st quarter. As well, most of our bulk tea was exported to the Middle East and Russia in the past. These countries have been dealt financial blows, causing lapses in the economy and reducing the purchasing power – prompting us to look into tapping potential markets in different regions while increasing our value. Since the onset of the recent world crisis due to the pandemic, we have experienced the lockdown of many of our mammoth markets but we have to change the trajectory by coming together as an
industry to face the dilemma. Together we can persevere and withstand the storms.” Ceylon Tea has evolved to a great
degree since its first flush to refresh the palette and warm the hearts of billions worldwide offering numerous value
additions from green tea to golden tips, silver tips, hand- made teas and more with numerous companies and the government investing on research and development. Dilhan Fernando, CEO of MJF, owners of the award winning Dilmah brand emphasized the daily intake of tea, referring to the beverage as an essential requirement for wellness, containing antioxidants which are
truly beneficial for health. It is also a beverage that significantly boosts the immune system. “The value or need for tea will always give us new options to explore but in order to do so we have to align a strategy that is practical and doable and work towards attaining our goals.” While much was said on the subject of tea, we also spoke to Chaminda Jayawardane, Managing Director of Lumbini Tea, owner of the Dalu brand situated amid the majestic Sinharaja forest in the low country. “While the
urgent need of the hour is to counter the effects of the crisis at hand which has resulted from the pandemic and is bound to affect the tea industry of Sri Lanka, it is my belief that the value and the demand for tea at large will  continue to grow worldwide, which we should cater to but the archaic methodology’s which have proved futile need to change with all stake holders working together to promote the country and the tea without merely trying to exploit the industry for their personal gain.” Finally and most importantly are the SME’s who bring in the revenue to the country by marketing tea in a special light, Shantha Kumara, of Silk Route Ceylon Merchants (Pvt) Ltd promoting Ceylon Tea through the Ceylon Kisses brand, “Tea will always be considered a beverage that draws people together as it spirals into something far greater than a mere beverage. While we stand with an industry that has grown exponentially throughout its 150 year old journey, we believe that we can prevail even in small way and contribute towards the success of it despite the adversities we face along the way.” Let’s Thrive and not merely survive The crux of the matter is to move forward with a likeminded-goal oriented force, with the times instead of just showcasing the laurels we have received in the pastas the Tea Industry of Sri Lanka requires vitality in order to thrive and not merely survive in the global arena.

• James Taylor arrived in Ceylon in 1852, settling down at the Loolecondera Estate, Galaha. He begins a 19-acre tea plantation on the Loolecondera Estate in 1867, laying the foundation for what would become Sri Lanka’s largest export industry for over a century.

• In 1872, a fully equipped tea factory began operating on the Loolecondera Estate.

• In 1873, Ceylon Tea made its international debut when twenty-three pounds of tea produced by James Taylor reached London.

• During the 1880s, tea production in Sri Lanka grew rapidly with planters from all over the hill country visiting Loolecondera to learn the basics of growing and manufacturing tea. By the late 1880s, almost all the coffee plantations had been converted to tea as it was seen as a more lucrative alternative.

• With the development of technologies such as the Sirocco tea dryer in 1877 and the tea-rolling machine in 1880, commercial tea production was now viable.

• In 1883, with the backing of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the first of many public Colombo tea auctions was held on the property of Somerville & Co.

• In 1884, the Central Tea Factory was built on the Fairyland Estate (Pedro) in Nuwara Eliya.

• In 1891, Ceylon Tea was sold at the London tea auctions at an astonishing price of LKR 36.15 per lb.

• In 1892, James Taylor, the pioneer of the tea industry in Ceylon, died at the age of 57.

• In 1894, the Colombo Tea Traders Association was founded, followed by the formation of the Colombo Tea Brokers’ Association in 1896.

• This period witnessed a significant increase in production. By 1899, nearly 400,000 acres of land was already under tea cultivation.

• 1915 was a historic year as Mr. Thomas Amarasuriya was appointed as the first ever Sri Lankan Chairman of the Planters’ Association.

• The Tea Research Institute was set up in 1925 to improve production techniques and maximise yields. As a result, by the end of this period,

• Sri Lanka was producing more than 100,000 metric tons of tea, mainly for export.

• In 1932, the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board was established.

• Higher standards were prescribed to prohibit the export of inferior quality teas.

• The world’s largest tea bush which yielded four pounds of tea leaves in a day was found in Ceylon in 1934.

• In 1935, Ceylon became a founding member of the International Tea Market Expansion Board (ITMEB).

• In 1940, the Tea Research Institute made a breakthrough in the control of the leaf eating Tea Tortrix Caterpillar. This was done by intentionally spreading a parasite, Macrocentrus homonae, introduced from Java.

• In 1941, M/s Pieris & Abeywardena, the first Ceylonese Tea brokerage firm was set up.

• In 1944, the Ceylon Estate Employers’ Federation was founded.

• In 1951, Export Duty was levied on tea.

• In 1955, the cultivation of the first clonal tea fields began. This is a method of controlling plant breeding to produce the best strains of tea.

• The State Plantations Corporation was established in 1958.

• In 1959, an Ad Valorem Tax was imposed on teas sold at the Colombo auctions.

• The very first Instant Tea plant was set up by Halssen & Lyon of Germany at Agarapathana in 1963.

• In 1965, Sri Lanka became the largest exporter of tea in the world.

• To celebrate 100 years of Ceylon Tea, the first International Tea Convention was held in 1966.

• The Sri Lankan government nationalised and took over privately held tea estates in 1971-72.

• In 1976, the Sri Lanka Tea Board, the Janatha Estate Development Board, and the Tea Small Holding Development Authority were established. Export of tea bags too began in this year.

• Sri Lanka was the official supplier of tea at the Moscow Summer Olympic Games in 1980 and the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982.

• In 1981, Sri Lanka began importing tea for blending and reexporting.

• The production and export of green tea started in 1982.

• In 1983, the CTC (Crush, tear and curl) tea processing method was introduced in the country.

• To commemorate 125 years of Ceylon Tea, an international convention was held in Colombo in 1992. The Tea Research Board was formed. Export duties and Ad Valorem Taxes were abolished.

• In 1993, state-owned tea estates were returned to the private sector.

• In 1997, tea exports from Sri Lanka reached 250,000 metric tons.

• With the closure of the London Tea Auction in 1998, the trade in Ceylon Tea centred solely on the Colombo Auction. • In 1999, the Sri Lanka Tea Board globally trademarked the Lion logo as an emblem of 100% Pure Ceylon Tea.

• The production of Ceylon Tea exceeded 300,000 metric tons in 2000. • 2001 saw the setting up of a Tea Museum in an old tea factory in Hanthana, Kandy.

• In 2002, the Tea Association of Sri Lanka was formed. • In 2008, the export revenue from Ceylon Tea reached USD 1 billion.

• In 2011, the Sri Lanka Tea Board obtained the necessary Geographical Indications (GI) certification for Ceylon Tea, meaning that only tea produced in certified regions of the Island and meeting stringent quality norms could be marketed as ‘Ceylon Tea’. This was an important step in ensuring quality and preventing counterfeiting. Sri Lanka also became the first country to be recognised as a producer of Ozonefriendly tea.

• The year 2017 marked the 150th year of Ceylon Tea. Since James Taylor established the first commercial plantation in 1867, the Sri Lankan tea industry has come a long way, now generating over USD 1 billion in export revenue and employing over 1 million citizens. (Source- www.pureceylontea.com Official website of the Sri Lanka Tea Board)

Facebook Comments

About Rochelle Gunaratne

I believe that everyone has a story to tell and in turn, I love listening to those stories, attempting to paint a picture to my readers with my words. I may not be an artist or painter, but I believe words can create powerful images in ones mind and it is how we share our stories with others.
No votes yet.
Please wait...
Voting is currently disabled, data maintenance in progress.