Former Tea Exporters’ Association President Rohan Fernando who also heads the Heladiv Tea Group, said that celebrating 150 years of Ceylon Tea is a landmark event. Reaching the milestone is not without challenges. The industry has has faced many obstacles in its long history, ever since the commercial crop was introduced by British planters.
“Until the late 1970s, tea remained as a mercantile sector export crop engaged in by large plantation companies and private estates. The industry was well managed and tea became the most important export crop for the country,” Fernando said.
However, he said that since nationalisation of estates and State encouragement for smallholder tea cultivation, the industry from a position of strength has gone into one that has to be funded by the taxpayers for fertiliser, replanting and price guarantees to pacify the large voter base of smallholder farmers which now produce over 70% of the tea crop.
“Authorities should study the changing patterns in the global market to shape the local industry to meet the new challenges by liberalising the supply chain for greater expansion of the global market share for Sri Lanka,” Fernando said. He said failure to recognise the true potential of the tea industry in terms of innovation, brand equity and large scale investments in the export industry backed by exporter friendly trade polices will be the hurdles to face after the euphoria brought out by the 150 year celebrations die down.
Lanka Commodities Brokers Limited Director Jehan Algama said that the tea industry has to focus on a quality drive to keep the industry up and going for the next decade or more, with quality tea exports that will bring in the much needed foreign exchange to the country. He said the Colombo International Tea Convention which drew over 250 foreign delegates focused on promoting Sri Lankan tea as a brand and showcased to the world, the potential of the industry for quality exports.
“We have the best teas in the world such as Uva flavours which is unique and the Western quality teas with the Nuwara Eliya western and eastern season tea. We need to focus on driving quality with good agricultural practices that will yield better results,” Algama said. Tea industry experts said that the dearth of labour is a huge blow to the sustenance of the industry which has vast potential to contribute to the economy. Youth in the plantation sector are shifting to lucrative white collar jobs causing a severe shortage of labour in the sector.
“The industry has to speedily come up with a plan to address the issue of limited labour to make the occupation more attractive with better facilities and income to stop the drain of the workforce,” industry experts said.
Ceylon Tea known for its unique quality and flavour has fetched a high premium price for decades.
However, the industry was unable to sustain the recognition due to the drop in quality and quantity which has moved it down in the world manufacturing and export rankings.
Sri Lanka is today, the fourth largest tea producer after Kenya. China, India, Vietnam, Turkey, Japan, Iran and Argentina are the other leading producers of tea.