“A major challenge the tea industry faced was the perception that there may be a COVID-19 outbreak as the plantation community generally lives in a crowded and densely populated area,” said Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, the Managing Director of Talawakelle Tea Estates.

He continued: “However, I must give credit to everyone concerned, from the estate management to the government health and law enforcement authorities, who took immediate action to implement certain protocols and systems.”

Furthermore, he commended the plantation community, which amounts to about a million people, as positive COVID-19 cases had not been recorded at the time despite difficulties in ensuring compliance with physical distancing and other preventative measures.

According to Rajadurai, the outcome of this experience was an understanding of the need to take decisive and rapid action, as well as conform to various requirements – i.e. health and management guidelines in the case of the pandemic.

He noted that conditions were under control in the tea industry in terms of controlling the spread of the coronavirus although it continues to face economic challenges: “Initially, there was a spurt in demand when people anticipated a breakdown in supply, along with panic buying that led to high prices coupled with the advantage of having a digital auction system.”

“But tea is a commodity grown all over the world with cheaper production costs than ours, which is a constant challenge we have had to contend with for the last three or four decades,” Rajadurai pointed out.

When it comes to the country’s efforts to position Ceylon Tea on the global market, he stated that Sri Lanka continues to supply the world’s highest selling tea at any auction, suggesting that it is sought after. However, he believes that more could be done to enhance the brand image of Sri Lanka’s offering.

In his view, the package of social services, benefits and facilities offered to key workers is unique compared to other economies.

“Additionally, a USP that Sri Lanka possesses is distinctive teas that cater to many palates due to the fact that ours is a small island nation with different [varieties of] soil and climatic conditions every 100 yards,” Rajadurai said, maintaining that “this is what we must promote and leverage going forward.”

As for innovation, he stressed that there is room for innovation in terms of the market and brand: “Since we have set positions in the supply chain as producers, we’re responsible for producing the tea and delivering at auctions. We must elevate this to another level.”

Rajadurai explained that 40-50 percent of Ceylon Tea continues to be exported in bulk form, an indication that Sri Lanka is not keeping pace with developments taking place in other markets.

Commenting on global trends, he noted that some advantages have arisen as a result of the pandemic as tea is considered to be an antidote by some: “We hope that more people realise the benefits of tea and resort to drinking it in favour of other beverages.”

However, he mentioned that the global supply of tea is outpacing demand due to competition from coffee among other products. Despite this, the beverage continues to be a preferred choice among those in Africa and Asia, presenting opportunities for expansion in terms of branding.

“We must seek innovative products and deliver them in keeping with customer expectations,” Rajadurai insisted, adding that tea can be used in forms other than as a beverage including in beauty and healthcare.

In his view, the tea industry could be lucrative and sustainable if those managing the plantations are given free rein to introduce operational models that could benefit employees, the management and the nation without government intervention.

“Ours is an archaic, colonial model of resident labour so we are promoting a revenue sharing model that would enable workers to take on entrepreneurial roles,” he concluded.