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Tete-a-Tete on Tea:

The cup that cheers

"Any time is tea time". That is a well-known saying. The "cup that cheers" has been such a common feature in our everyday life that we tend to forget its origin in Sri Lanka, where it has become the largest employment creator, biggest landowner and a substantial contributor of foreign exchange.

Picking the “two leaves and a bud” that go to make the “cup that cheers”

Phoenix-like, tea grew out of the ashes of the coffee plantations which were first established by the British. At one time Sri Lanka was the largest exporter of coffee in the world.

Then came a bolt from the blue. A devastating blight, for which no known control measure was available, wiped out the plantations.

Fortunately tea seeds of the Assam (Indian) and Chinese jats, which had been sent earlier from the Botanic Gardens in Calcutta for pre-testing in the coffee areas, proved to be adaptable .

James Taylor

James Taylor from Scotland was the first planter to grow tea on a commercial scale at Loolecondera Estate in 1867.

James Taylor (on right) with a fellow planter

Not only was he the first planter to grow tea commercially, but also the first to convert it into the "cup that cheers".

He sent two small packages of made tea (23 lb) valued at Rs. 58 to the UK by ship in 1872 as a trial export product which was found to be acceptable.

Taylor spent his entire working life on Loolecondera Estate. When he died of dysentery at the early age of 57, his workers are said to have borne his coffin all 18 miles to Kandy, taking turns every four miles or so.

He was buried in the Mahaiyawa cemetery. On the headstone of his grave was the following dedication: "In pious memory of James Taylor of Loolecondera Estate Ceylon, the pioneer of the cinchona and tea enterprise in this island, who died May 2, 1892, aged 57 years".

Some of the tea bushes that Taylor first grew in 1867 have been maintained as a memento to his pioneering spirit.

Little else remains to remind us of Taylor: only a pile of granite stones covered with jungle creepers, which was once his bungalow.

At the time of Taylor's death the new tea crop had rapidly advanced to replace all the old coffee plantations around Kandy, Pussellawa, Kotmale, Ambagamuwa, Maskeliya and Ramboda.

New estates were opened in the untouched forests of N'Eliya, Dimbulla, Dickoya and Adam's Peak, bringing the total to 250,000 acres.

Thomas Lipton

That was when Thomas Lipton entered the picture. As millionaire, who had made his money from a chain of grocery stores in England, he was a big investor in "Ceylon Tea".

He bought his first estates Lemastota, Monerakande and Dambatenne in Haputale and later Pooprasse, Bunyan and some others totalling 5,500 acres.

He advertised extensively in the UK and America, thereby advancing the demand for tea, so much so that his name became synonymous with tea worldwide.

Dambatenne, the last of the Lipton-owned estates, was taken over by the Ceylon government in 1975 during the period of nationalisation.

William Somerville

Another Englishman who has to be remembered in the promotion of the "cup that cheers" is William Somerville, who started the tradition of tea auctions.

In 1883 he auctioned the first lot of 6500 lb, and afterwards the firm of Somervilles continued the business as one of the seven approved tea brokers taking part in the auctions.

After the tea industry was nationalised, the planters in the new regional companies had to face different situations from their predecessors. They were partly privatised, the government still holding the major shares.

The transition was not easy. The regional plantation sector was called upon to pay a value-added tax of Rs. 25 million a year and an economic service charge that affected their competitiveness. There was also the issue of high wages with no corresponding productivity.

Kenya overtook Sri Lanka as the world's major tea exporter. This may not be considered a real issue as Kenya is a bulk exporter of tea and Sri Lanka is more a premium-quality value-added exporter.


The question is how much longer this product value-added advantage would last.

Regional plantation companies feel they have the capacity to make the value-added product sector grow. But unfortunately this is not happening as fast as it should, most likely due to a lack of surpluses to plough back into the estates for branding.

Accordingly some form of state assistance would be required if not grant, at least concessionary loan schemes - to boost value added tea exports.

Even then there is yet another problem to consider - the emergence of Vietnam as a low cost producer, competing directly with Sri Lanka in orthodox tea, which is at present this country's speciality and niche market.

Sri Lankan tea is of superior quality at present, but should Vietnam achieve the same quality, then some companies believe that we will lose the present advantage we have as a commodity player in the international market.

These companies feel that there is a need now to be prepared to offset such a turn of events by looking to other means as well of adding value to the estates.

They believe there is much opportunity for real-estate development and also diversification in palm oil, floriculture, horticulture and even gemming joint-venture projects, if the climate is right.

These are areas that the government may have to pay more attention in future.



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