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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Sri Lankan firm takes on tea giants
Shoppers selecting tea.
Dilmah's tea are available at stores in the UK

A Sri Lankan family tea company is challenging the multinational control of the global tea industry.

Dilmah says it has become the third largest global tea brand by marketing its pure unblended Ceylon tea directly to the consumer in more than 80 countries worldwide.


Not only we as producers have lost out but you as a consumer have no choice

Merril Fernando,
chairman Dilmah Tea
The idea is to revive the image of Ceylon tea as the best and most expensive tea in the world.

The tea trade has become dominated by a few giants who buy up bulk tea from around the world and blend it together, losing the distinctive flavour of different regions.

Producers like Dilmah say the result is freshness and quality have been sacrificed to low cost and uniformity.

Growing concern

"Not only we as producers have lost out but you as a consumer have no choice.

"You have to buy a blend of teas like plonk in wine," says Merril Fernando, chairman of Dilmah Tea.

He demonstrates how tea-tasting is done, noisily slurping a mouthful of cold black tea, swishing it around in the mouth and then spitting it out.

Woman worker at Dilmah's tea garden
Dilmah's workers are now getting a lot of benefits
He is concerned that the 20 to 30 different varieties of low and high grown Ceylon tea will disappear, if not in his lifetime then in that of his children who help him run the company.

The fear is they will be replaced by only three standard varieties, wiping out all diversity.

"There are very few small players now in the world tea market," explains Mr Fernando.

"Small operators like us survive because we do something different."

Unique

Dilmah's claim to be unique is that it boasts it sells the freshest tea in the world.

It says within 15 days of the leaves being plucked on the hilly estates in central Sri Lanka the tea has been processed and packaged in vacuum-sealed packets that keep the freshness in.

"With our product you can experience the taste of tea as you would taste it on a tea estate," say the men from Dilmah.

What has made this possible is the biggest tea plant in Asia, fully computerised with strict hygiene controls to meet European standards and capable of packaging 60,000 tonnes of loose tea a day.

Consumer's choice

Machines roll out 2,000 tea bags a minute including more than 20 fruit flavours as well as traditional types.

Women workers plucking tea leaves in Dilmah's tea garden
Boasts the freshest tea in the world
It is of course ironic that Dilmah should be producing tea bags when its chairman calls them "a ruthless desecration of all the beauty and romance of tea".

But sometimes the consumer has to get what he wants and it looks as if Dilmah tea is finding a market among more discerning tea drinkers.

The company entered the Australian market 12 years ago and now says it is the second best selling brand even though it is the most expensive on the shelf.

Dilmah tea also has now begun selling in Britain.

Quality tea

Every week Dilmah says it gets letters from tea drinkers around the world saying they have rediscovered the old-fashioned taste of tea they remember from their mother or grandmother's kitchens.

This company says tea has been a poor man's crop for too long and it's about time other producers followed suit and added value to their raw material.

They argue it's good for the industry as a whole because the extra profits can go into improving living conditions on the estates notorious for their grinding poverty.

See also:

31 Dec 01 | South Asia
01 Feb 02 | Business
Links to more South Asia stories are at the foot of the page.


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