Every student in Sri Lanka learns, sooner or later, that tea is one of the island’s main exports. But how many realise just how important the industry is, and the international reach that Ceylon tea has?
The industry was first introduced to the country in 1867 by British planter James Taylor. The humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall in the island’s central highlands provide a climate that favours the production of high quality tea.
Today, Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea – accounting for a significant 19% of world exports. Sri Lanka is the second largest tea exporter in the world, second only to Kenya, and the Colombo tea auction is the highest priced in the world.
The industry is also one of Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign exchange. Tea accounts for 15% of GDP, generating roughly $700 million annually. The tea sector employs, directly or indirectly, over one million people in Sri Lanka.
Ceylon tea is popular all over the world, particularly in the country that started it all: the UK. The rising popularity of Ceylon tea in the UK has seen many UK-based importers – in addition to Sri Lankan exporters – specialising in Britain’s favourite drink. Wils Tea (www.wilstea.com) is one such enterprise. The Somerset-based company is run by Robert Wilson, a sixth generation English tea planter, who used to live in Sri Lanka, and who now works in close collaboration with his Sri Lankan partner, Delwita.
“Chinese teas were very cheap several years ago and secured a strong foothold in the UK, especially hand sown teas, green teas and white teas,” said Wilson. “And Indian teas have maintained a good foothold here because several important buyers in the UK are of Indian origin with a natural preference for their Indian teas. However, a growing clientele are breaking away from the standard commercial teas in supermarkets and large stores, and looking for better quality teas, single estate teas. There is also a growing preference for leaf teas against tea bags.”
This clientele, maintains Wilson, is the market that seeks Ceylon teas.
The Colombo branch of Wils Tea, a member of the Tea Board, sources ‘seasonal extreme’ quality teas direct from some 14 estates. They also handle the company’s design needs, packaging requirements and arrange shipping. Ceylon teas comprise 80% of the company’s sales.
Other Sri Lankan companies which export to the UK include Dilmah, Mlesna Tea and Tea Tang. Wilson commented, “...if Ceylon teas were marketed aggressively in the UK to the top end of the trade, they could easily compete with Indian and Chinese teas.”
The website of the UK Tea Council (www.tea.co.uk) has the following introduction to Ceylon tea: “Sri Lanka may be only 25,000 miles square, but its immense tea cultivation yields 298,000 tonnes of tea a year! Perhaps when you next make ‘a cuppa,’ your tea leaves will be from the South Asian island?” Knowing now the huge potential for Ceylon tea in the UK, let’s hope we can answer ‘yes!’
The UK is Sri Lanka’s second largest trade partner, by volume. The tea industry, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest exports, offers obvious potential for further growth in bilateral trade.
If you would like to develop your business interests in the UK, whether as an exporter or as a potential investor, we recommend the following tips:
Understand the market – what is the potential for your product or business idea in the UK? Western markets have specific characteristics, of their own. Discover where the needs of the market and your business offer fit together. A marriage made in heaven?
Find trade bodies or official partners that will support your business aims. The Sri Lankan High Commission in London is a good place to start. They have a new British-Sri Lanka Chamber of Commerce set up just to help people just like you.
Focus on what makes your company special. Like the UK, Sri Lanka has a rich cultural heritage with many unique features. For example if you have a high quality single estate tea, grown in ecologically friendly conditions on a plantation with a long-standing reputation, find a way to market these aspects of what you do. In a market like UK, your ‘story’ is important.
Meanwhile, for a wealth of information on the practicalities of setting up business in the UK, visit the UK Trade & Investment website at http://www.ukti.gov.uk/investintheuk/faqs.html.