Tea, lifestyles and thinking beyond perceived limits
By Random Access Memory (RAM)
The Asian Development Bank is reported to be assisting the private sector plantation companies to add new value at the plantations extending the focus beyond the crops they produce now. These companies are to furnish plans to expand into tourism and other activities to qualify for soft lending support.

As is normally the case, when there is an offer of 'free' funds, the thinking caps are put on and a new sense of vitality sets in among most. Many of the estate bungalows we understand are to be developed as upmarket tourist resorts or facilities. Sites and sounds that were just noises before, have now become sweet music and most have joined the bandwagon to think beyond the tea brokers, tea- auctions and exporting tea dust as 'fertiliser' to realising the thus far 'unseen' and unexplored potential of the plantations. Responding to short-term support systems and filling in on short-term needs in the main, have been hallmark features of the commission agent type culture of most businesses in Sri Lanka.

The few 'out-of-the-box' entrepreneurs who have done well in adding value to our tea industry and to Sri Lanka as a brand by retailing tea in a most exotic fashion abroad, still remain in the fringes of the leadership of the industry locally. A few had over the years taken on a shift of emphasis attempting to brand their estates or plantations (a terminology with a negative connotation linked to slavery) as ' Tea Gardens '. A commendable attempt is also made by a couple of companies to add value to their tea at the point of production.

They sought a branding of their exotic produce, on similar lines as the vineyards do with their different presentations of wines with a brand association of the location of the vineyard at which it is produced. This is in spite of not having 'area centred' brand protection for Sri Lanka tea or any of the tea garden brands similar to that enjoyed by the French vineyards or Scottish breweries under international trading laws. While Champagne can only come from the area in France where it is made or Scotch whiskey exclusively from breweries in Scotland, tea can be sold branded as Sri Lankan tea, even if it is produced in Kenya or Indonesia, if the tea plants used are shoots of a tea plant from Sri Lanka.

A few other forward thinking companies have moved on to organic growing of tea, production of green tea, flavoured tea and even herbal teas. Yet a few others are moving on to take advantage of the instant tea market dominated by iced tea drinkers. The need today is to shun dogma and conservatism and adopt creative directions away from the comfort zones in which we operate.

What is common to tea and tourism (leisure) is that both are lifestyle products. In that context, there is a strong synergy in positioning tea with its health benefits and also as a beverage with which one can attain mind-body- soul wellness. Most of us are aware of how the Japanese and the Koreans have made a fine art of the tea ceremony that has its origins in China. The tea ceremony is today a key element in the tourism tapestry of both countries and the Chinese are keenly rediscovering the marketing potential of this traditional ritual as a tourist attraction.

As was pointed out in a recent journal article by a Washington based Sri Lankan writer, “US consumers are fast shifting from being ardent coffee-drinkers to tea drinkers.” It claims that this has not been the case since the Boston Tea Party, that the Americans have paid so much attention to tea, drinking 50 billion cups of tea or, 2.2 billion gallons a year with 80 percent of that drunk in the form of iced tea. The writer also poses the challenge whether Sri Lanka's tea marketing machine has what it takes to cash in on this trend.

The facts are that the world's largest tea auction has been held for over a century each week in Colombo and the rest of the world barely knows of its existence, a tea museum is located in Kandy for a those who visit it on occasion and several private sector estates have set up roadside tea centres along major roads on the tea route to give a free cup of tea to the foreign visitors, hefty commissions to tour guides, to sell gift packets of tea to tourists with demonstrations of tea tasting, but not of tea making.

In an age when the global coffee shop chain Starbucks serves Ceylon tea, and being a country where tea has been a lifestyle and a lifeline industry for well over a century and half, we still are far from making a fine art of developing a globally marketable style of a good tea culture of our own. It is true that tea is part of our British colonial past and is not part of our conventional offering. Since branding is a quality plus consistency proposition that needs creative thinking and execution, the tea industry needs to be led to get out of their conservatism to present itself with a brand new face to reach out to the world.

Our tea industry leaders may do well to explore and project the manifold heath benefits of tea, design drinking tea into a fun mind-body-soul wellness ritual and develop a tea drinking culture with a sound public relations effort.

What the industry now under tea needs to do, is to set up horizontal linkages with not only export development but also with tourism and investment promoters to aggressively work towards taking our tea and our tea gardens to the world and make the world seek our tea and tea gardens.

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