Ceylon Tea: A Stirring Legacy to be Remembered

In my homeland, Sri Lanka, a warm cup of tea is more than a daily routine; it’s woven into the fabric of our culture. From the misty mornings to the serene evenings, tea is a shared experience for everyone, offering moments of respite and connection.

Tea from the highlands of Sri Lanka, better known as Ceylon tea, boasts a myriad of health benefits. Rich in antioxidants, it supports overall well-being and has been linked to potential cardiovascular benefits as well.

Our tea culture owes its roots to the British colonial era, a legacy that also bequeathed us the Queen’s highways and vital infrastructure.

One can still traverse the historic route from Kandy to Colombo, initially crafted for transporting coffee but later repurposed for the burgeoning tea industry that has been significantly contributing to the country’s economy for over two centuries now.

Tea cultivation was a transformational chapter of Ceylonese history and runs back to the early 1800’s. Tea produced in the highlands of Ceylon were auctioned off to large multinational tea trading companies at a more than favorable price.

In turn, they were shipped off to England to be sold as “ Pure Ceylon Tea” to the tea drinking public of the United Kingdom.

Although the benefits of the tea trade were solely enjoyed by the colonists, the practice went on for a long time.There were no Sri Lankans who really took part in the thriving tea industry that produced “Pure Ceylon tea”. But, the fact remained that Ceylon Tea was enjoyed by many households across the globe.

Unfortunately at one point in history, tea connoisseurs were rid of the right to enjoy the high quality drink which is rich in antioxidants and contains just the right amount of caffeine. It was done by the greedy traders who idolized the notion of getting the largest piece of the pie over optimizing quality and truly delivering for the consumer.

A boy hailing from a rural seaside town on the west coast of Sri Lanka, Merril.J. Fernando was made aware of this during his time in London. He had witnessed the said great conglomerates, mixing relatively lower quality tea from India and Africa with Ceylon tea and marketing it as “Pure Ceylon Tea” to the unsuspecting consumer.

The same Conglomerates then gradually started branding their tea as just “tea”, granting them the liberty to carry on their practice of mixing different variants of the plant to maximize profit, a fair move I would say.

It was in the late 1950’s that the now renowned entrepreneur Fernando, an amateur tea taster at the time was posted to London as a tea taster. It was this exposure to the scenes behind the curtain of the tea industry that developed within him an aspiration to create a uniquely Ceylonese brand of tea at the ripe age of 24.

Even Though those aspirations did not come into fruition until his 50’s, he had described that it was always on the back of his mind, almost as if a spirit was in his ear keeping him anchored to this purpose.

With this purpose on the back of his mind he was diligently absorbing all the details of the Tea industry, including harvesting, packaging, branding and distribution. Fernando eventually relocated to Sri Lanka to start a medium scale tea supplying business with only two processing machines.

Dilmah tea is the only Sri Lankan tea brand that has a global consumer base, and I was first made aware of this during a trip to Australia, a few years ago.

During my trip, I was pleasantly taken aback by the sight of Dilmah tea boxes displayed on the vast shelves of Australia’s Coles supermarket. It was this particular encounter that served as an enlightening moment for me on the significance of effective marketing.

The name “Dil-mah” had been created by combining the names of Fernando’s two sons “Dilhan” and “Malik”. Dilmah tea was branded as a family brand from the very beginning, and Fernando’s face was deliberately made synonymous with the brand as his photo was on the back of each box.

The initial promotional video was one to be remembered too, it featured Fernando himself in a three-piece suit enjoying a cuppa tea at his home, delivering the iconic line “do try it”. Fernando later recalled how people would shout “do try it!” during his many travels to the oceanic region, where it was popular.

Building and developing a tea brand in a tea-growing country where the practice for over a century had been to supply tea leaves in bulk to multinational conglomerates, is no menial task.

It was indeed an uphill battle to take on bureaucrats who were in cahoots with the representatives of multinational conglomerates in the country. However, Fernando was armed with a clear vision and a persistent attitude.

Speaking at Harvard Business School, Fernando said, “Despite the slow start, I always was aware of the fact that I had a great story to tell the public”.

Dilmah tea’s success can and should be attributed to the persistence and perseverance of Fernando, and he should be celebrated as a visionary entrepreneur who was a disrupter in every sense of the word pertaining to the tea industry.

Not every business can be a thriving business, they thrive on the interest, acceptance and relationships with the consumer’s. Moreover, they are built off the backs of hard working laborers. In this case, it’s the tea pluckers who carry the most weight in terms of physical labor.

The tea plantation communities are an extremely poverty stricken section of Sri lankan society, they live in line rooms on the estate itself. They would work all day on the estate and be left with a few hundred rupees as the days pay.

The few hundred rupees they received from an entire day’s labor was not enough to feed and educate their children, which is the ultimate ultimatum in a country where the only way out of poverty is through education.

Tea catapulted Fernando into the oblivion of success and left with a void to touch people’s lives with the abundant resources that god has blessed his life with. A lesson he always accredited to his beloved mother, and the closely knitted seaside community that he grew up in.

So, Fernando started his charitable foundation and decided to help the workers’ children receive a good education. He donated sufficient stationery for them to complete their primary education.

The foundation has provided scholarships to the children of estate workers to continue their higher studies paving them ways towards lucrative careers.

At the time of his demise, Fernando had donated 7 billion rupees of his personal earnings to support underprivileged and special needs children throughout the island.

The MJF charitable foundation has been responsible for creating successful Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors and Entrepreneurs out of children who would have otherwise been destined to pluck tea under the scorching sun, like their parents before them.

He was often described as a genuine man who was often emotional when in the presence of special needs children. Who, despite his immense success walked around with his eyes fixated on to the ground upon which he stepped.

In his mind he was but a humble farmer with an aptitude for tea, not a big shot Forbes listed business tycoon.

Fernando’s good intentions were made evident by the fact that he never used the clout he gained through his charitable activity, to help turn the tide for himself to get appointed to a political office. To this part of the world this man is an exceptionally rare breed.

Fernando’s story serves as a good lesson for humanity, his philanthropic efforts obviously touched a lot of lives. The ability to truly touch another human soul is potentially a capability that we all possess. To be satisfied with enhancing the human experience for individuals who are handicapped physically, mentally and even financially, is a godly quality.

A godly quality that we all possess, and it’s up to us as individuals to scratch through the rough exterior of the self and reach to the innermost soft, pure and loving dimension of life. Let Fernando be an inspiration in your journey. Do try it!

In memory of Merill J. Fernando, a pioneer who took Sri Lankan authenticity to the world. Rest in Peace.


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