Kaley Tea founder Udena Wickremesooriya

Udena Wickremesooriya

Certifications soothe the conscience, but do they deliver for the communities where workers reside?

In principle tea certification programs have positive impacts but in practice results are highly location-specific and mixed. Farmgate prices generally rise along with gross income, but so do costs that are borne by farmers in about 60 percent of certification programs. Certifications are an imperative for marketers seeking to export tea – third-party certifications soothe the conscience of retailers and consumers, but do they address the needs and interests of tea workers in the communities in which they reside?

Udena Wickremesooriya on certification programs.
Udena at Kaley
Kaley Tea founder Udena Wickremesooriya at a July 2020 Ceylon tasting showcasing artisan tea makers.

Certifications Soothe the Conscience, But Do They Deliver for the Communities Where Workers Reside?

By Dananjaya Silva | PMD Tea

Dananjaya Silva: Third-party certification is popular with EU consumers and elsewhere? How do you earn the trust of buyers without an organic certificate?

Udena Wickremesooriya: I think it’s a tough one because everyone’s used to certification and certification is the easy way to prove you are organic.

It’s how we communicate our authenticity, the authenticity of our story. If you look at CATA (Ceylon Artisan Tea Association), if you look at all of us artisan tea makers we are on ground. We live here at least 20 days per month.

So if you look for one word, its authenticity the authenticity of our story and how we communicate the authenticity of our story. Certification is more than a marketing label. It assures soil and water conservation. It limits deforestation and increases plant diversity.

Silva: Certification is more than a marketing label. It assures soil and water conservation. It limits deforestation and increases plant diversity. What steps does Kaley take as good stewards of the land?

Wickremesooriya: The first thing is being on the ground. There’s a lot of documentation control one can do, for example. I sign off on every invoice that we payout. I know what comes in and what doesn’t. So if you stop stuff coming onto the land, that’s one way of control to ensure that what shouldn’t come into the site doesn’t come.

The second is creating the forest ecosystem, building the soil. We have a diverse mix of forest trees that we plant in between the tea. We also have patches of cinnamon so we bring plant diversity which builds soil. We just started making biochar which will feed into the soil.

The third element is our cows. We have ten of them to make a liquid fertilizer from dung and urine. We apply close to 2000 liters per acre.

Silva: Udena, what are the most pressing challenges facing small producers of premium quality tea.

The very first challenge is marketing. How do we get our teas out there? I’m fortunate that I worked elsewhere before I became a farmer, I have travelled and have a network to leverage, but most farmers are locked on their farm. They don’t produce what the market needs and they don’t know how to get their product out. They don’t know how to build a brand, how to communicate. So marketing is the biggest. The key issue that stops good Sri Lanka artisan tea products from reaching the market and reaching the consumer. So marketing is the biggest.

The second is how we change the mindset of everyone around us to say that the ecosystem is critical and that good leaf is critical because of good qualities made on the soil in the land. And how do you? How do you really manage your bushes? How do you pluck good leaf? This is a second second key aspect.

So the first is marketing, getting a product out and the second is how we grow and source good quality raw material.

Kaley Tea Estate
Workers sort tea leaves at Kaley Tea Estate, Sri Lanka

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Editor | Publisher | Podcaster | Consultant | Journalist Dan is the founder of Tea Journey Magazine, the Tea Biz Podcast and Blog, and a contributing editor at STiR coffee and tea. He is the former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine, former editor and publisher of World Tea News, and former editor-in-chief at Specialty Coffee Retailer, then headquartered in San Francisco. Dan has traveled the tea lands, speaking on retail beverage trends in Canada and the United States and at conferences in Europe, China, India, Australia, the Middle East, South America, and Africa.

1 comment on “Udena Wickremesooriya

  1. John snell

    Dan, about time we had another deep look at where DLTs are and what they can manage, given this piece!

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