Colombo, December 7 (The New Indian Express): The Sri Lankan Minister for Plantation Industries, Navin Dissanayake, has appealed to the country’s tea industry to change with the changing domestic, international and climatic conditions so that tea remains one of Sri Lanka’s top foreign exchange earners.
Briefing the media on plans to celebrate 150 years of the tea industry in Sri Lanka here on Wednesday, Dissanayake said that the accent from now onwards should be on quality rather than quantity, and earning more from less, in the international market.
At present, tea is the fourth largest foreign exchange earner bringing in US$ 1.5 billion per annum. It is also one of the largest employers serving 2 million people directly or indirectly. Fortunately, Sri Lanka is also able to sell every kilo of tea it produces.
But the industry has its share of problems. The cost of tea production is higher in Sri Lanka than in Kenya and India, which are the top producing and exporting countries. But this cannot be an excuse for not being competitive in the world market, the Minister said. Japan, where the cost of production is high, is able to sell its teas at high prices. Quality Ceylon Tea has a high-end niche market world-wide, and this should be capitalized on.
High labor cost is cited as one of the ills of the industry. Some steps, albeit unsatisfactory, have been taken to incorporate productivity norms in the wage agreement entered into with the workers ‘unions recently. One way to address the issue of productivity is to give plots of plantation land to workers’ families for them to cultivate on their own and sell the produce to the plantation companies. But this is being resisted by the unions as they fear it may impair workers’ unity or the unions’ hold on the workers. The Minister said he believes that this issue can be sorted out through discussions with the stakeholders.
The tea plantations are facing a shortage of labor, with workers as well as managers leaving for better career options. The solution to this is to learn to work with the available labor using better technology and scientific cultivation to get better yields. This calls for greater investment in research and development than now. The Tea Research Institute is doing a doing a good job with limited funds, but it has to be given more help.
Minister Dissanayake said that there is US$ 65 million fund for the development of small estates (which account for 70 percent of the country’s production of tea) and there is World Bank scheme for the big Regional Plantation Companies (RPC).
Climate change has a major impact on the tea plantations. Colombo receives more rainfall annually than a tea growing area like Nuwara Eliya, with the result, Nuwara Eliya can actually be considered a Dry Zone. Given the climatic changes, the minister said that tea growers should be advised on where they can grow tea.
Minister Dissanayake assured that the ban on weedicides will not be imposed without consultation with stakeholders. He also said that the 5000 acre cap on plantation size is only an idea that is being discussed.
Although Sri Lanka’ tea exports declined because of unsettled conditions in the Middle East, and there were problems in exporting to Iran because of US sanctions, prospects of selling tea are not dim. Russia ,a top traditional market, might start buying more after President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to Moscow next year. Within the next two or three weeks the government would announce an international marketing campaign to be undertaken in 12 markets world-wide with an outlay of US$ 35 million.
The prospects for selling tea are good as everyone overseas drinks at least two cups of tea a day and the Lion Brand “Ceylon Tea” is well known. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is keen on putting the plantations on a better footing. On Wednesday, he had met the stakeholders in the tea, rubber and coconut sectors for two hours, Dissanayake said.