Going beyond agronomic research for plantation reform

Monday, 13 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Sri Lanka plantation sector has been plagued by a number of recurring problems over the years which it hasn’t been able to fully resolve, including the issue of labour wages for tea plantation workers. The inability to find solutions to these problems might be connected to the absence of non-agronomic research to fully understand the more intrinsic and even broader issues that plague the industry.  

The lack of R&D in the Sri Lankan plantation sector has resulted in the heavy dependence on agriculturally-based techniques with only incremental changes to the existing level of performance, restricting necessary value additions that could have been made to increase the sector’s viability and contribution to the economy.

Taking the ‘traditional triple’ – tea, rubber and coconut – into consideration, the industry has experienced a downturn in recent years for various reasons, amidst increasing global competition. 

Sri Lankan products are being outgunned on different fronts and we need to make some bold decisions if we are to reform and preserve the sector. However, these solutions must be created at the end of extensive research and thought, taking many dimensions into consideration.


Information gaps

Up till now, most of the research conducted in the industry by official research bodies revolves around the agronomy aspects of the sector, ranging from land and labour productivity, plant breeding, pest and disease control to crop and soil analysis. 

While these are important, we also need to take a step back and assess in detail, the different cogs in this 150-year-old machine – the RPCs, small holdings and state organisations that manage and cultivate the land to create the country’s plantation sector output.

From private ownership to colonial rule back to private ownership then state purview to the current status, the management of the plantations has transformed over the decades and we haven’t thoroughly explored the impact and implications these changes have had and how they contribute to the present problems we are observing. Ascertaining the impact of these drastic changes to the operating system of the industry, is necessary if we are to address current problems in a sustainable manner.


Research and data matter

‘Backcasting’ is a concept created by Professor John B. Robinson, which is a planning method that starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify policies and programs that will make it a reality. 

Top line, when it comes to Sri Lanka’s plantation sector, it’s easy to outline what a preferred future would be; from being more efficient and innovative in production to becoming more globally competitive and less dependent on Government subsidies. 

This would result in increased revenue, thereby enriching the value chain, enabling the industry to more effectively tackle significant problems, including the disproportionate cost escalation to revenue issue which currently ails the tea sector.

The human factor is key in bringing this to fruition and that is why I stress on the need for more research on the people and entities that will be tasked to implement or align with policy changes, i.e.: the management of the plantation sector. In 2015, the absence of a formal scientific study in this vital area led me embark on a study of estate managers in Sri Lanka to research leadership styles and organisation innovativeness.

It was the first large-scale scientific management research carried out on the Sri Lankan plantation sector, with the participation of over 200 directly, operationally involved plantation managers across the country. 

The idea was to assess innovativeness, organisational culture and leadership styles in the industry to ascertain the prevalence, extents and importance of these factors in the industry, while determining if the three were related and drawing conclusions based on these findings to identify possible improvements the sector can make. 

My intention was to gain a deeper understanding of the sector’s previously unexplored aspects and establish a platform that would allow other researchers to join in the search for solutions to the industry’s different problems.


Implications of the findings

hefindingsofthestudyhaveseveraltheoreticalandmanagerialimplications.The study considered three major variables, namely: leadership style, organisational innovativeness and organisational culture. 

The leadership style variable, considered as the independent variable of the study, encompassed charismatic, transformational and authentic leadership styles. Organisational innovativeness as the dependent variableand organisational culture (the mediating variable),which consists of four widely accepted traits: involvement, consistency, adaptability and mission.

In terms of managerial implications, the evidence collected by the study confirmed that the lack of innovativeness through strategic decision-making at the leadership level and the absence of a conducive environment for management to implement critical changes can be linked to the continuously poor performance of the sector.

It’s important to note here, that those being interviewed for the study considered current leadership to be good. However, this is an indicator of operational competency and not necessarily the strategic competency the industry requires.

Respondents in the interviews, however, expressed their confidence in the continuity of the sector despite its poor business results. This is just one observation from the study that I’m mentioning here to highlight the need for further research and analysis of the inner workings and strategic issues that affect the plantation sector, beyond just the agronomical aspects.


Using this knowledge

Planning and implementation are key in reforming the sector and attempting to return it to its glory days in the ’80s when it was Sri Lanka’s high foreign exchange generator. To do this however, we have to dive deep into every aspect of the sector and identify what will aid in reaching the preferred future we want for the industry, while assessing the many areas that require drastic change if we are to make the sector profitable, delivering value to stakeholders and strengthening the economy.

Based on this, there is a need to look ‘beyond the plants’ and at the organisations and systems that have operated the sector over the last 150 years, and assess what they may need to be doing different to draw more dividends and ensure the sustainability of this industry which directly and indirectly provides employment opportunities to nearly a million people.

The need of the hour is more non-agronomy-based scientific research that will aid in the search for answers to the industry’s current problems.


(This is the first in a series of thought pieces on going ‘Beyond the Plants’, an attempt to identify and address problems in Sri Lanka’s plantation sector. The author, Dr. Neil Bogahalande, is a director of state and private sector plantation 

companies with extensive experience at 

operational and strategic levels. He can be contacted on: [email protected])

Recent columns