Thursday 1st September 2016
Today I took high tea with an extraordinary gentleman, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, something that most would agree is a life altering experience. Today I listened to how this man, as young boy born in a humble Sri Lankan village fifty or so years ago watching impoverished tea plantation workers literally enslaved to big British companies for meager wages, changed the course of fortune for an entire nation, his home of Sri Lanka.
Representing BrideclubME, the UAE’s leading wedding inspiration website, I joined a group of invited media to listening to the life story of Mr. Merrill Fernando, the founder of Dilmah Tea, and his staggering efforts to give back to his country so that his fellow man would be unshackled from the yoke of subsistence living and lifted out of poverty.
Merrill Fernando made it his life’s purpose to turn a business success into helping the poor; to share his success with others; to eliminate inequality.
The story goes that Fermando’s parents gave him a solid start with advice such as: look after animals, give to the poor, share with your neighbours. As a school boy he witnesses countless tea plantation workers starting in the fields at daybreak and finishing late into evening, taking meager salaries, being driven hard by the British companies employing them. He saw it as exploitation, creating wealth in other nations, but Sri Lankan workers taking nothing of the profits; remaining hungry.
As a young adult, he had the fortune of being trained as a tea taster, at a time when Sri Lankans were not allowed; only ‘whites’. With this came the opportunity to go to London where he was appalled at how his beloved Celon tea was mixed and rendered impure. But what riled him was discovering a huge inequality: what British paid to Sri Lanka for their tea versus what they sold to British manufacturers of packaged tea drove him to act: Sri Lanka was paid 50 cents per kilo of tea yet the British would sell it for $25.
So, at age 25 his thoughts turned to creating his own brand of Celon tea and sharing company earnings with the poor. But he didn’t have the money nor marketing knowledge to do so till some 34 years later, when he indeed founded his own unique brand, naming after his two sons combined – Dilmah.
He marketed Dilmah in the first instance to Australia and New Zealand in a deal to supply bulk tea. See, at this time tea had become a commodity, losing its integrity. Previously it was truly pure Celon tea. With mass manufacturing, it had just become ‘tea’. What was in such tea was anyone’s guess. Fernando ensured integrity of the flavour and product with its ‘single source’ origin, ethically produced: grown and picked, manufactured and packaged on site in Sri Lanka.
Well Aussies loved the taste, Dilmah spread globally, a previously impoverished nation profited and as they say, the rest is history.