PM urges tea industry to think outside the cup

Thursday, 10 August 2017 00:12 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Outlines importance of focusing on new lifestyles, supply chain systems, food technologies and sales techni
  • ques to conquer new markets 
  • Insists if investments are insufficient locally Govt. will allow investors from other regions
  • Tea consumption in the UK decreases while it is growing in India and China 
  • Asks TRI to let the industry grow as they did earlier
  • Assures support for tea smallholders

profileBy Charumini de Silva

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday served the 150-year-old tea industry a cup full of refreshing ideas to reach greater heights.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Colombo International Tea Convention, the Premier called on all stakeholders to go beyond a traditional tea cup and explore the industry from a fresh perspective to outperform others in the global arena.

Wickremesinghe outlined the importance of focusing on new lifestyles, supply chain systems, food technologies and sales techniques to conquer new markets by 2050.

“I just looked at the long-term future of the industry. Looking at the world population in 2050, you are going to have an additional two billion people and most of them are going to be wealthier than they are today, whether they are in the working class or the middle income class. By the end of the three-day convention if you can focus on the markets by 2050 then the rest of the picture is easy for us to think about,” he added.

He said that with the higher income, the tea industry would have to think in terms of mechanisation and automation. “These will become necessities. And there will also be the need for conservation and the additional cost for that conservation.”

Noting that all these initiatives require new investments, Wickremesinghe insisted that if the investment from Sri Lanka was insufficient, the Government would have to allow investors to come from other regions. 

“If you don’t invest, you perish. If you invest, you survive. We have to take a new look at the total industry,” he stressed. 

He said the rapid growth of the population as well as the tea industry will be limited from India to Indonesia, adding that there will be more people above the age of 60 who are natural tea drinkers and insisted that anyone who is over 40 years of age was part of a good market.

With different types of beverages invading the market and lifestyles rapidly evolving by 2050, Wickremesinghe encouraged tea stakeholders to create different varieties of tea products that could outperform leading products in the global market.

“I cannot tell you how it is going to be in 2050, but it is going to be a completely different one. Do not think of supplying tea only in a traditional form of a cup which is brown or black or iced tea. Try to make the successor to Red Bull; that’s how you should think now. We have to rapidly increase the value added percentage of our total tea production,” he stressed.

The slow growth of the population, which calls for a minimal land requirement, was outlined as a plus point for Sri Lanka while the shortage of labour was pointed out as a negative factor going forward. 


“While the world population will increase by two billion by 2050, the maximum we can increase the population at our rate of fertility is about two million. So the plus point is that the pressure for land is less. The minus point is that the supply of labour will move out to the industrial and service sectors for higher wages,” he pointed out.

Commenting on prevailing market conditions and consumer patterns, he said that although tea production has doubled from 1995 to 2015, the gap between tea production and consumption has decreased. He also emphasised that tea consumption in the UK has decreased, while noting that many millennials were not drinking tea. 

However, he noted that tea consumption was going up in India and China. 

Taking a very close look at the Tea Research Institute (TRI), he said: “You must earn your keep. The only way to earn your keep is to let the industry grow as you all did earlier.”

The Prime Minister noted that the Government was also changing the system, where estate workers were now being given land to build individual houses for a better lifestyle.

In terms of the role of workers, he said the industry should make a decision on whether they could go on with the traditional workers, subcontract the land or think of a combined model.

He acknowledged that the Tea Board, Colombo Tea Traders, members of the tea industry, members of the plantation unions and tea smallholders were all direct stakeholders and commended their efforts and commitment in sustaining the tea industry for 150 years in Sri Lanka. 

Stating that there was a belief that all the tea was brought from China, Prime Minister assured that the tea was not from China but from the region. 

“I can assure you this is not Chinese tea. All the tea that the British got from China died in India. Somehow India has not had a good climate for Chinese tea. This is some variety that was founded in the region and we have committed. We took the rubber from Brazil and tea from India and turned it into a big industry,” he added.

He also spoke extensively about the history of tea and how it evolved into what it is today.

Wickremesinghe said modernisation commenced in 1835, which was a first for Asia, with state land then being made available for cultivation, and an administrative service and public school education system being brought in. 

However, it was pointed that after nationalisation, an accelerated tea economy came into place in 1977 with the opening up of the economy under the leadership of Sri Lanka’s late President J.R. Jayawardena, where large loans were obtained from Asian Development Bank and the state plantations investing in the estates and roads being rebuilt, which made the difference that enabled the State plantations to go on and become RPCs 10-15 years later.

“As money came in it affected and benefitted many parts of the country. It changed the demographics of the area because the local Sinhala villagers were not interested in working on plantations so we had to get the labour from South India. It made new classes for Sri Lankans who benefitted,” he said.


While the industry itself was British, the periphery created a wealthy, strong Sri Lankan middle class, he said, adding that it was this wealth that enabled Sri Lankans to invest it elsewhere so the next generation made money. 

He also encouraged tea smallholdings, which was created by the late D.S Senanayake, which became a substitute for employment in the Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces. 

He asserted that the industry which grew from tea smallholders today contributes 70% of the country’s tea production. 

“We will improve tea smallholders’ practices and provide access to credit to modernise.” 

“It is time we have to think fresh in the tea industry in Sri Lanka and I thought it was much better to have a younger politician in charge so the best I could think of was Navin Dissanayake. Your father delivered with the Mahaweli (project); kindly deliver with the modern tea industry,” said Wickremesinghe. 

Pix by Pradeep Pathirana