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Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence. Following the pandemic, many industries on the island ceased to exist due to political and financial difficulties. However, the island’s tea industry continues to battle on. Tea Biz correspondent and PMD Tea MD Dananjaya Silva discusses with Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, the Managing Director of Hayleys’ plantationshow Hayleys’ plantations have adapted and continue to produce tea, given the economic hardships.
Caption: Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, the Managing Director of Hayleys Plantations, left, discusses with Tea Biz correspondent and PMD Tea MD Dananjaya Silva how organizational discipline and adaptations enabled tea production to continue during the pandemic and recent economic hardships.
Listen to the Interview
How Sri Lanka’s Tea Industry is Coping with Continual Crisis
Production is down and export volume declined compared to last year but auction prices are at a high mark and Ceylon tea remains in demand. I traveled to Sri Lanka to assess the condition of a resilient tea industry following an unsettling spring marred by high unemployment in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic. For several months tens of thousands protested the inflation-driven cost of food and shortages of basics, including fuel, cooking gas, and electrical power. The upheaval led to the resignations of both the prime minister in May and the nation’s president, who fled the country in July.
Dananjaya Silva – How did the COVID pandemic restrictions show Sri Lanka’s plantation sector to be resilient and adaptive?
RoshanRajadurai – The plantation sector has a legacy of 150 years of very well-organized, centralized management structure, so when this pandemic situation suddenly came up the government imposed a three-day curfew which we had to abide by. But on the fourth day onwards, we quickly got on board, and made things as normal as normal could be.
The moment we caught wind of this pandemic situation, we put in place a series of measures at our 60 tea and rubber plantations. First, of course, we made our people aware of what this is all about.
There was an influx of people from Colombo and outstations, flowing back to the estates. So, we made sure their names were recorded, and if they showed signs of infection, we had isolation quarters. We isolated them for 14 days, and kept the medical and other authorities informed when they returned to the community. The organized sector has one million people living in a village-style setups in close confines. The measure we took were effective. Up to about the end of last year, we didn’t have a single casualty arising out of COVID. That is because we identified and limited exposure to the people who were coming from outside.
In addition, we did fumigating and provided simple medicines. And most importantly, we ensured that people didn’t have to congregate and that they didn’t have to go to bazaars and townships.
We organized distribution with the large food suppliers, like the government warehouse system, and brought in food in lorries. And we had stocks for two or three months. We delivered food packets practically to their doorstep. What is important is that we ensure that the workers did not spread this COVID.
There was also a group of people who had no other means of earning more income. Although last year was not a good year financially, we ensured that their wages were paid. And as a means of helping the people in this situation, we opened our industry to those who arrived from Colombo and elsewhere, and gave them work in areas that we could not manage with our regular workforce. So, their family unit had more opportunities to earn more when sons and daughters returned.
We already had in place a revenue share model, so we expanded it. There were a lot of people who didn’t want to be registered workers but they still got into the earning pool for their family and were able to enhance their family income.
So we had a very, very tough and a very well disciplined control system and to the credit of workers, I must say they cooperated fully.
They listen to the management; they follow the advice of health departments. So that’s an example of success and how after long years of practice the plantation sector was able to manage a crisis like this.
Dananjaya Silva – How did adaptations forced by the pandemic help Hayleys prepare for the political turmoil of 2022?
Roshan – After COVID came the financial crisis. There was no work to go back to in the construction industry as it had crashed, and also the eateries and small hotels. So, all the people came back to the estates and we made available opportunities for employment. One example is paying workers to remove weeds. We said we will pay you by the kilo and that was a very good intervention as people who don’t want to return to sort of plucking or harvesting work, they go to the field, remove the weeds and we pay them. This was essential because of the limitations on fertilizer. We convert the weeds to compost. Soil augers were given to each division and placement of holes tracked. Once the compost is made, we filled the holes and incorporated the bulk material and the compost into the soil so that it enhances the soil fertility.
Dananjaya – What you’re saying is that this 150-year-old industry, that has been the backbone of the Sri Lanka economy, continues to be that because workers who are from plantation backgrounds who’ve worked in hotels, construction, they once again come back to live on the estate.
Roshan – Actually, Dananjaya employment is only part of the solution that we provided, because there was an influx of workers. And it’s actually stretched our services. But we made sure that we accommodated them, that we looked after them in terms of food supply, because there was no food because the COVID curfew and restrictions. So our managers went out and bought curfew passes, they really did a great job on the ground. I mean, they volunteered – they could have waited and said, look, we don’t want to expose ourselves. But every company, every manager, every planter, took it upon himself to look after his community on the discharge of food, medicine or the wherewithal. Everything was provided and absolutely no breakdown. And ours is the only industry right now maintaining the industry as it was before a lot of challenges, a lot of stress, a lot of issues, but we still maintained the industry as it was.
Dananjaya Silva – Fertilizer was banned last year then the government subsequently reversed the policy. How is this affected Hayleys estates?
Roshan – Well, on the whole, banning of fertilizer was a shock and surprise to all of us due to the ill effect and the consequences of this hasty, unscientific and illogical strategy. We made significant protests, voicing opposition in media and TV talk shows and whatever but to no avail.
We are a large organization and we stock sufficient fertilizer for one or two applications ahead. Last year I did not plan for the banning, but I thought that we learned some lessons on logistical problems, with fewer ships coming, curfews on crews and the slowed movement of goods. So we gave instructions to our managers to store fertilizer for six months, anticipating a breakdown of logistics. Then, in the meantime, they banned the fertilizer, and therefore we had some stocks. Uncertain supply and high prices completely changed the way we apply fertilizer now because we know that for a year or two, we might not get cost effective fertilizer.
In the past we used to broadcast fertilizer but we quickly reverted to a system called placement where we dig a hole and put in a measured 24 grams of fertilizer per bush. In this way, you’re reducing the wastage from volatilization, and leaching while improving efficiency by a significant level. We are also stretching the fertilizer as one application done in this manner means we can sit out two or three future applications. Fortunately for Haley’s group, although we didn’t plan for the ban, we had planned for something else. It also gave us sufficient fertilizer and for food crops raised by workers, so they could infuse some so that they are not going to go without food.
Dananjaya – When you talk about ensuring food for workers, that’s a stark contrast to the situation for someone living in an urban area, isn’t it? People there don’t have the opportunity to stock food, and are relying on retail supply. There is no guarantee for them, as they might find themselves standing in a queue for days, and not be guaranteed any food at the end of it.
Roshan – The plantations you know, care for not only the direct workers, but all dependent family members. So if someone has got COVID, we say, don’t worry, we have given the family food over the year in some cases, we can recover it. So by that action, people have confidence in the management that we have looked after them in a very, very critical time. And when they were sick, we made sure that the government medical authorities or personal care management were involved. We offer a holistic total system of care for our people.
In towns, as you said, we all have to stand in queues, and those who do are not sure there’s stocks, but in our case, we bagged provisions and dry rations and brought it to their home so that they don’t have to come and interact or mix with people and spread COVID. So that way, I think we got a huge boost in terms of human resources. When we gave very tough guidelines and instructions, they followed the advice like keeping a distance while working whereas traditionally they were together in a row. We said you have to separate immediately and without any protest they showed wholehearted obedience and support for us.
Dananjaya Silva – Fuel shortages have crippled and decimated many sectors of the country what provisions and adaptations Hayleys have made to ensure the smooth running of operations.
Roshan – After the crisis came on, definitely we have taken radical measures to reduce the running of unnecessary trips and vehicles. We have mapped out all the roads in each division and compared distances and identified the shortest routes to make transport more efficient.
We also introduced some innovations like ziplines. These were built before the crisis, but came in handy. We can save about 90 kilometers a day on trips to the factory because the tea otherwise has to be driven along a circuitous route. It’s eco-friendly and does not use fossil fuel. We have instituted several eco-friendly practices. Now our managers and assistant managers are provided with good Push bicycles, and they have resorted to more walking,
Dananjaya – One area that you touched on was moving tea from estates down to Colombo, there has been some disruption. How are you working through that situation because because the logistics are provided from from outside of the estate.
Roshan – Normally, we manufactured and made arrangements to send our produce to Colombo, and to ship it out. What we do is provide measured fuel to take the tea down to Colombo and even for firewood suppliers because we need firewood to run our dryers. So we assist them in some form. Because of the fuel shortage we are trying to harvest wood that is already grown on the estate for this purpose and adding branches cut to reduce some excessive shade.
All those initiatives and energy efficient measures add up. We are relying more on hydropower and we are trying to put almost 60 to 70% of our roofs in solar. So all those things can happen after the crisis. These are interventions that happened before COVID and the financial crisis, which have a beneficial use for us right at this moment.
Dananjaya Silva is the managing director of London-based PMD Tea and a third-generation tea man whose family business, P.M. David Silva & Sons, dates to 1945 during the Plantation Raj in Ceylon’s Maskeliya Valley.
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Caption: At left, Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, managing director Hayleys, agents for Kelani Valley, Tallawakelle, and Horona plantations, sits with Tea Biz correspondent Dananjaya Silva, MD PMD Tea.
Sri Lanka is in turmoil politically and financially; the country of 22 million is struggling as widespread demonstrations continue. Unrest is tied to food inflation exceeding 50%, with critical shortages of cooking gas, fuel, and reliable electricity. The country has defaulted on its foreign debt, and its currency devalues with a credit rating that discourages outside investment. Government bankers are at an impasse in negotiating a bailout from the International Monetary Fund that will depend on difficult reforms, including higher taxes and governance changes. Tea producers are confronting all the above challenges, yet the Ceylon tea brand remains resilient. Last year, the industry generated $1.32 billion in US foreign currency, exporting 300 million tons of tea, of which 270 million was high-value orthodox tea.
Export earnings increased 6.72% during the 2021 calendar year compared to 2020. Every subcategory reported growth, with exports of tea bags growing 84%, tea packets up 10%, sales of bulk tea up 2.5%, instant tea sales of 19.5%, and green tea up 22.8% through December, according to the Export Development Board.
Industry veteran Niraj De Mel was named Chairman of the Sri Lankan Tea Board in June 2022, his second appointment to a position that he previously held in 2004. In this discussion with correspondent Dananjaya Silva, Managing Director at PMD Tea, de Mel explains the challenges and solutions facing Sri Lanka’s tea industry.
During his 45 years in tea, Niraj de Mel has worked as a taster, broker, exporter, and educator. He is past chairman of the Tea Exporter’s Association and the Colombo Brokers Association and served as vice chairman of the Colombo Tea Traders Association. He is the founder and director of The Mel’s Tea Academy in Colombo.
Dananjaya Silva – Tea professionals globally say they are happy to see a safe and steady hand on the tiller as you return to steer the Sri Lanka Tea Board. Given the current political situation, how secure is your position?
Niraj de Mel – Well, to start, let me tell you a bit about the developments before my appointment [on June 20]. Come the middle of May, the industry got together, and because they thought it was time, we told the authorities what we knew best and what was best for the industry.
So, arising from that, they also decided on the people best suited best-suited for the positions at the TRI [Tea Research Institute] and the Sri Lanka Tea Board. I was asked to step back into my previous role as chair for obvious reasons. The immediate past chairman went along with this delegation and met the minister [Minister of Plantation Industries, the Hon. (Dr.) Ramesh Pathirana] to discuss these things and told him that after the debacle as a result of a wrong decision on fertilizer, it’s time that we get the feedback from the experts. Plus, the industry will tell them exactly how things should be run. We have been doing this for the last 155 years, and it’s arising from that conversation that I’m in this seat today.
Dananjaya – Now that a new president has been named, will changes in the cabinet likely means a new appointee to the Minister of Plantation Industries post?
Niraj – I sincerely hope that he [Dr. Pathirana] will be reappointed to the position. Of course, there is no issue whatsoever because he and I will get on.
He’s a minister who sizes up things quite well. He’s a learned man being a medical doctor himself. If there is going to be a change in ministers, the Associations will take up with whoever who’s appointed to the position of Minister plantations that you know that I should remain. Be that as it may, I’m here to do the job.
First and foremost, we need to steady the ship.
Dananjaya –The ban on importing chemical inputs, including most fertilizers, was halted in October, but the effects of the setback linger.
Niraj – Mistakes were made, but circumstances that led to that decision have changed. The big development is a result of the Russian-Ukrainian war, a conflict between some of the world’s largest fertilizer suppliers. Fertilizer has since become scarce and prices went sky high, impacting Sri Lanka at a time when our currency itself also depreciated, compounding matters for the average tea farmer. It’s now virtually impossible for him to afford this kind of price.
To address that, the Sri Lanka Tea Board considered an initiative that has been knocking on the door since January. I see from the minutes a request for funds from the promotion levy to be used to facilitate a loan scheme so that farmers get fertilizer to start feeding these bushes, which have been starved for nutrients.
The board has since delivered fertilizer to nearly 100 factories to offer to smallholders and regional plantation companies. They are working to ensure that the estates will have sufficient fertilizer within about one and a half months.
Editors Note: The Hindu reports that India, on July 17, delivered 44,000 metric tons of urea under a credit line extended to Sri Lanka, as part of New Delhi’s ongoing efforts to support the island nation’s farmers and help bolster bilateral cooperation for food security, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said.
Dananjaya – It seems we’ve returned to the days of old during the colonial period when the Planter’s Association essentially told the Governor of Sri Lanka what was good for the country. Because what was good for the planters’ community was good for the country.
Niraj – Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s time actually that all the private sector did that, not only tea. The private sector has long been the engine of growth in this country, be that planting, manufacturing, exports or brokering. All that is well handled by the private sector and the government sector, such as the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka, does the research.
Dananjaya – The crisis not only impacts the rural tea sector. Service providers report difficulties obtaining financing, fuel, and reliable electrical power in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s hub for blending, packaging, and shipping. Will you describe how the tea board is addressing these concerns?
Niraj – I think there needs to be some clarification on this. The private sector basically handles it, but we are trying as far as possible to assist. I have tried to instill into the minds of the officials that we have to be an enabling outfit.
Going back to your question No. 2, there’s one item that was missed: the fuel factor. Actually, that has taken precedence over fertilizer now because the collection of leaves as well as bringing the manufactured tea out is essential to run your factories. Exporter functions, particularly the tea bagging sector, where the machines have to be run continuously, all require an uninterrupted power supply. Power cuts that have been prevailing in this country for the last 4-5 months are an encumbrance to the people, as a result of that, now compounded by the fact that there’s fuel scarcity, particularly diesel. So given the availability of fuel we are trying our best to contact all concerned with the right message to ensure that the producers get their fuel quota.
They cannot have it the way they used to have, because the country itself is, you know, is importing fuel ship by ship. The private sector importers, in particular, have stepped in, which is very magnanimous on their part. To fast-track this process, the government has said, well, if you can produce the foreign exchange, you can certainly get the fuel across. So, the private sector exporters banded together to give off whatever they could.
Dananjaya –As new problems have arisen over the course of this year, from power cuts to rationing fuel, the tea industry has drawn on a battle-hardened core of tea professionals who are able to react quickly and make provisions to see that the industry continues to operate.
Niraj – That’s right. That’s right, reaffirming that Sri Lanka tea has for 155 years been one of the most resilient industries in this country.
There will be little disruptions here and there, but the fact of the matter is we are managing, though it’s challenging. There is great unity among the stakeholders, particularly now with these current issues which they had to face together. We started at the beginning of the pandemic back in 2020. Everybody came together in two and a half weeks to quickly convert to an electronic platform to conduct the auctions, which was great. That carries on to this day. The Colombo traders are very, very confident that there will not be a return to the old outcry system. I started life as a broker and enjoyed the outcry system, but the fact-of-the-matter is we have to move with the times. The platform has enabled us to quicken the process, giving buyers, producers, and brokers time to spend on other things.
Cricket is an apt metaphor… Cricket is the only game that stops for Tea, the country might be 74/8, with a bumping pitch and blinding light, but the Tea sector continues to bat on at the crease.
Dananjaya Silva is the managing director of London-based PMD Tea and a fourth-generation tea man whose family business, P.M. David Silva & Sons, dates to 1945 during the Plantation Raj in Ceylon’s Dimbula Valley.