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Rohan Pethiyagoda

Even as we celebrate 150 years of Ceylon Tea, there is a new urgency to devise the innovations and interventions that must be made if the industry’s diverse stakeholders are to continue to prosper. How should we grow the value tea brings to our economy and our people? The days of the ‘business-as-usual’ model we have inherited may be numbered. Steeped in tradition as the tea industry necessarily is, change comes but slowly. Even small changes can, nevertheless, have enormous consequences, good or bad.

The principal challenge that confronts would-be tea innovators, however, is the difficulty of seeing outside the fishbowl. Unless we create opportunities for cross-cultural exchange with leaders from other sectors and disciplines, we risk being stuck in a time-warp of our own making.

That ‘quality’ is the main selling point of our teas is beyond argument. But defining and achieving quality from the perspectives of the wide assortment of people who matter—consumers, exporters, growers, manufacturers, regulators—is an enormous challenge. The ISO3720 standard and the MRL schedules of importing countries are but the lowest common denominator. How do we take ‘quality’ to a new level? Clearly, we need to look to other industries that have succeeded in doing this and better to understand the opportunities that are available to us.

Be the quality of our tea ever so high, however, unless we can take it efficiently to the world and persuade consumers to pay top-dollar for it, we’re wasting our time and it is our competitors who will triumph. So, with quality and cross-cultural exchange as our goal, the Sri Lanka Tea Board, with the generous support of Unilever Sri Lanka, has organized a Forum on Quality Assurance for competitiveness, drawing mainly from the experience of proven leaders from other industries. Their problems—and importantly, their solutions—are necessarily different from ours; but we can nevertheless apply their experience to learn how best to set and achieve our goals.

In my experience, for the most part, the leaders of all segments of the tea industry—and especially the more successful ones—are averse to change. They have found a formula that works, and they work it to the bone. The industry is, after all, thriving after 150 years: someone must have done something right. I believe, however, that we can do it better. We just need some inspiration. That word, however, literally means “to breathe in”. All you need is air. This forum will help us open the windows and let some fresh air in.

Here then, is an opportunity for the movers and shakers of the world of Ceylon Tea to hear how other successful quality specialists, managers and entrepreneurs have overcome similar obstacles and helped their industries to reach new heights. I urge you to attend, listen and discuss. I have no doubt that the experience will greatly strengthen our ability to meet the challenges of the future and open the door to new prosperity.

Rohan Pethiyagoda
Sri Lanka Tea Board