Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Tea King of Sri Lanka

I am fascinated my most aspects of tea. But one that always has stuck in my head is the image of Merrill J. Fernando. This quaintly old-fashioned gentleman would smile out of commercials for Dilmah tea, inviting me with his slogan “Do Try It” – a slogan as inoffensive as he is.

I became aware of the fact that he was incorporating his sons into his commercials. And when you bought the tea – yes, back then I used to buy tea bags – there was often a letter included, where Mr Fernando would let you know of the happenings within his tea family.

I loved those letters. They didn’t change often enough. I craved the next bit of news. After all, this was a while back, when there wasn’t much of an internet.

I realised that not only was he a family man, but that his ‘family’ included all of those who worked for him. With no middleman, he was able to control the whole process from employing the pickers to selling the tea. So if there were people exploited – or there weren’t – it was down to him.

I remember being asked about 5 years ago to name a person I admired , and I chose to expound upon his exploits. That’s right. Most people think I am eccentric at best, anyway and this did nothing to change that.

But here’s a quote that will help you to see what I mean:

‘Workers receive assistance in their day-to day existence with subsidised groceries, assistance with housing, interest free loans as well as the usual requirements of health, etc. Additionally, we try to be flexible in understanding their needs and addressing them at all levels.

On the tea estates, the work of the MJF Foundation brings tea pluckers the benefi ts of free medicines, free hospital facilities, educational scholarships, nutritional programmes and assistance for elderly and re tired workers, child-care facilities in crèches which have been upgraded to model crèche standards by the Foundation, amongst others.’ (quoted in Lucire Living, NZ)

In an industry where exploitation is the norm, this is most unusual.

And then came the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004:

‘Our response to the enormous suffering caused by the tsunami took two forms: short-term emergency assistance (which included tending to the injured, providing food, medicine, drink ing water, etc.) and long-term reconstruction (rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, providing psychological support for the affected and ultimately rebuilding the socioeconomic fabric of the coastal communities) ‘Among the fisher communities which bore the brunt of the tsunami, the MJF Foundation has, like several other charities, replaced boats, nets, provided engines, community centres and storage facilities. What is a little different about our activ ity in these areas is that we have tried to ensure that the material assistance we provide is part of a comprehensive and sustainable programme of assistance rather than simply being a donation of goods.’ (quoted in Lucire Living, NZ)

His two sons were introduced into the business at ground level and have worked their way up to management positions. They weren't handed management jobs, they had to prove their worth. along the way, they found thier niches. That's a smart move.

As I write this column, I intend to touch on the good, the bad and the ugly of the international tea trade. So, I have started with a fine example of the good - a man by whom not just tea growers but all sorts of people can be judged and found wanting, your humble author included!

The Devotea raises a cup of tea to Merrill J. Fernando.

1 comment:

  1. That's amazing, I had no idea. Wonderful to see someone setting such a positive example in the industry... if only others would follow.

    The main thing I remember about Dilmah commercials are the ones with Kamahl... 'can't get enough of that Dilmah tea' ... heh.