Sri Lanka Tea Board, Plantation Human Development Trust, the Colombo Tea Auction are my nominees. Can they take the challenge or, in lieu, make a bigger contribution to branded exports?

#StrikeOutALS took an idea that had been on the fringes of social media since early 2013 and created a viral fundraising phenomenon that raised $ 88.5 Mn. and counting, in less than two months. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord leading to gradual loss of voluntary muscular action and total paralysis. The uncharitable might find a resemblance to institutionalised bureaucracy, but in my view this is purely coincidental.

Just this week, the Chairperson of the SLTB was quoted in media bemoaning the fact that branded exports pay scant respect to the Pure Ceylon Tea logo. Surprising, since every tea exporter unfailingly reproduces the story of Ceylon Tea. Is the historical narrative more relevant to Ceylon Tea than the symbol, then? In the past the position of SLTB Chair was often a sinecure. The hands on approach of the current Chairperson, is refreshing. As a pioneering market researcher she must know that both hard and soft data are essential for effective strategy. Research needs not only to count the number of hands that pick a brand off the shelf but must also tell us what moved that hand to pick that brand. This may deliver insight and ideas that could restore the Pure Ceylon Tea logo its glory.

The PHDT is a unique institution in which 3 key stakeholders of the industry are represented, viz: Large Plantations, Unions, and Government. Since its creation in the early 1980’s it has done much in the areas of health, maternal care, early childhood development and learning, water, sanitation, roads, and housing for plantation workers. Combined with political representation and the collective bargaining power of plantation unions, the plantation worker in Sri Lanka is better off than those of other large tea producing nations. This story needs to be told to consumers who are now increasingly interested in how brands are made. This is a role the PHDT should address as it then begins to link its activity to supporting the growth of value added exports. Being more inclusive by including smallholders in its constituency and being a channel for brand social responsibility could give the PHTD an opportunity to grow its role and be a valued partner to the tea industry.

There’s an App it seems for everything. This trend has yet to hit commodity trading, but early signs are emerging that IT could be playing a bigger role in how tea is bought and sold. Experimental on line auctions are already linking regional centres in one of our larger competing nations and there is talk of setting up futures trade exchange. One of the advantages of online trading seems to be that, while tea samples are sent via brokers as usual, there is a significant reduction in time between buying and delivery, which directly impacts the freshness of the tea. The Colombo Tea Auction is a venerable institution that dates back to colonial times. Might be time for it to wake up and smell the tea.

Professor K.M. De Silva in his work ‘History of Sri Lanka,’ comments that tea as the main contributor to agricultural production would have made a far more significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s GDP, if the industry had the dynamism of its more recent competition. The challenge now is made more complex by climate change, a more informed and value seeking consumer, pressure on land for other uses; yet value added exports may yet deliver on this prediction if all stakeholders pull together.


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