by Remy Jayasekere, Chartered Engineer
In the recent past there have been several articles written opposing the government decision to increase the wages of tea estate workers. On November 21, the Island newspaper published an article titled “Tea industry experts willing to learn the magic formula …” written by a spokesman for the Planters’ Association. Its theme was that under the present conditions it is not possible to increase wages.
There is a 1,000 acre tea plantation called Nerada in far north Queensland in Australia (neradatea.com.au). It produces 6.6 million kg of leaf and 1.6 million kg of made tea annually. Total labour force is less than 50 and the factory is manned by four people in a shift. The minimum hourly wage in Australia is about AUD 20 or around SLR 2,500 which works out to SLR 20,000 for an eight-hour day. Nerada pays above minimum wages so that they can retain talent.
Leaf plucking is done by one machine for the whole plantation – therefore there is only one tea plucker at any time and plucking is a 24-hour operation. The plantation is family-owned and they have developed all the technology themselves – no Tea Research Institutes or Tea Boards.
If Nerada can pay SLR 20,000 per person per day why can’t Sri Lanka pay SLR 1,000 per day? The answer is simple – at Nerada 50 people produce 1.6 million kg of made tea annually which works out to 32,000 kg per person annually. This is worth about AUD 150,000. Pay the worker AUD 50,000 per year and the company has AUD 100,000 per person per year for other things.
This has been achieved through innovation which has resulted in mechanisation and automation of processes. SL has not innovated, continuing to do things the way they have been done for ages. This could be the net result of many decisions taken in the past such as nationalisation of the plantations, regional plantation companies (RPC) not owning the plantations, therefore milking them rather than developing them and general backwardness of the country in developing and employing modern technology.
RPCs have managed the plantations for more than 25 years and if they are interested in developing the plantations, they had ample time to do so. However, they have chosen to remain in the dark ages without any innovative thinking and actions and now are arguing against wage increases. SLR 1,000 is around USD six per day which is not much higher than the extreme poverty level defined by the UN. The actions of the government, the plantation companies and the planters have made sure the workers remained in poverty during the past and now want to ensure that continues into the future.
In the 1980s Singapore had the problem of being turned into a large garment manufacturing centre which they did not want. The government increased the wages of garment factory workers – the message was innovate and produce more per worker or close down. History shows they all closed down and engaged in other pursuits. The Sri Lankan government should be congratulated for taking this bold step of increasing wages – the message is clear, innovate or we will change the agreements. How can you let the RPCs hold a large proportion of the population as well as the economy of the country hostage.
What is stopping us from using a company such as Nerada as the benchmark and trying to achieve what they have achieved. Let me list a few steps.
1. Green leaf – Nerada produces 6600 kg per acre per year. Considering it is one plantation, as a country can we aim for at least half of that. I am sure everyone knows what to do – the list is long. Definition of innovation – 5% is knowing what to do and 95% is doing it.
2. Plucking – This possibly is the highest cost item in the production of tea in Sri Lanka. Two excuses are given for not mechanising plucking – the terrain does not allow for mechanised plucking and mechanised plucking reduces the yield. New replanting areas should have the terrain modified to enable mechanised plucking. The myth of reduced yield does not stand against evidence from Nerada
3. Factory – There are more than 700 tea factories in Sri Lanka employing large numbers of people. Factories in some areas cannot find enough people to man them. Most of these people are used for transporting material from one process or machine to another and in some cases to watch and operate machines. At Nerada all these operations are automated and only four people are required in a shift. Why not scrap the existing factories and build new ones – the payback will be very quick. One of the big problems in the past was trying to modify existing factories which limits possibilities. Do not think outside the box. Think there is no box.
4. Then there are other minor things that go beyond what Nerada has done – using solar energy for the driers and using dehumidified air for withering. Nerada has no need for producing dehumidified air as the humidity in that area is very low.
5. The workers cannot do anything about these. The government, RPCs and management have to take the initiative to improve our plantations. There are no bad soldiers – only bad officers
I believe I have made a case for increasing wages of plantation workers and hope the RPCs will look at this in a positive manner.
Rootcode wins Startup of the Year and People’s Choice Award at SAARC Startup Awards 2022
Rootcode, one of Sri Lanka’s leading tech companies, recently took home the “People’s Choice Award” in addition to being bestowed with the “Startup of the Year” title at the SAARC Startup Awards 2022. This regional recognition marks a significant milestone for the Sri Lankan tech space and workforce. Rootcode’s mission to build great tech is well underway, and it is gaining traction faster than ever.
This is the first time a Sri Lankan tech company has made a name for itself in the regional competition, and it is a watershed moment that has focused the global spotlight on Rootcode’s distinct approach to fostering innovation in Sri Lanka. This is also the first time that a Sri Lankan company was able to take home two awards of those presented at the SAARC Startup Awards.
Global Startup Awards SAARC celebrates the spirit of entrepreneurship and promotes bridging boundaries through innovation in its regions, which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, by recognizing them with its most prestigious awards program, attended by top-notch entrepreneurs, corporates, investors, and ecosystem builders from Nordic, Central Europe, SAARC, and ASEAN regions.
Every year, the SAARC Startup Awards bring together hundreds of South Asian startups, entrepreneurs, investors, co-working spaces, and accelerators to provide a platform to highlight trailblazers in the region’s startup world. Rootcode was chosen ahead of dozens of other regional tech startups in the competition.
Sri Lanka is a relative newcomer to the South Asian startup fraternity, and Rootcode’s ability to represent the country on the global stage not long after its inception is remarkable.
“We are extremely humbled and honored by the support shown to us at the SAARC Startup Awards 2022, and being recognized under two categories is a huge milestone for us,” said the CEO and Founder of Rootcode Labs, Alagan Mahalingam. “We have always been driven forward by excellence, collaboration, and integrity, which I believe is the reason why we have come so far and why Rootcode continues to grow every day.”
Rootcode is driven by its focus on helping businesses build great tech not just locally but globally, and its achievement at the SAARC awards stands as a testament to that. Despite the challenging times, this is a win for Sri Lanka.
INSEE Cement felicitates Sri Lanka’s youngest Commonwealth medallist
INSEE Cement awarded aspiring wrestler, Nethmi Ahimsa Fernando, who won a Bronze Medal for Sri Lanka at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, LKR 1 million cash reward, to support her to pursue her passion. Suranga Kumara, her coach, also received LKR 250,000 cash reward, in appreciation of his contribution towards Nethmi’s recent achievements. INSEE Cement has also pledged to support Nethmi’s aspiration to represent Sri Lanka at the 2024 Olympic games, while also providing the entire cement requirement for the completion of her new house, which is presently under construction, in collaboration with the Manusath Derana initiative.
Has Sri Lanka finally learned its lesson on emotional vs evidence-based agri policies?
By Dr. Roshan Rajadurai
Inflation looms large over every Sri Lankan as the price of food and other essentials continues to skyrocket. At the center of this historic economic, political, social and humanitarian disaster are a series of deeply flawed and widely criticized policy decisions which have plunged the nation’s agriculture sector into complete disarray.
Among the decisions being singled out for criticism both locally and globally is the now infamous overnight ban on the importation all agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizer, weedicides, pesticides, and fungicides.
At the time, the policy was held out as the first and only preliminary measure needed to drive an immediate, island-wide shift to organic agriculture. Dubious “organic agriculture experts”, as well as medical doctors and monks were found in abundance, loudly proclaiming the virtues of a “100% organic agriculture strategy”.
These once vocal champions of organic agriculture claimed at the time that the ‘declining health of the average Sri Lankan’ and the negative impacts of agro-chemicals on the environment, as well as the annual US$ 48 billion that could be saved by halting fertilizer imports was sufficient justification for the ban.
These same “experts” were quick to dismiss the warnings, counter-arguments, and volumes of scientific data of respected academics and professionals with actual agricultural experience as being nothing more than the dishonest lies of what the former Agriculture Minister imaginatively dubbed a “Fertilizer mafia larger than the Sigiriya Rock”.
Back in September of 2021, after many months of frantic discussions with the leadership of the day, I stated the following in a widely published article titled: ‘Sri Lankan tea’s current crisis only reinforces the value of productivity-linked wages’
“Without any prior planning or notice, our entire sector has been coerced into blindly participating in the most unscientific experiment ever attempted in Sri Lanka’s history…The broad consensus among those with expertise is that we can start to see exponentially worse crop losses starting from the end of 2021, hitting approximately 30-40% by next year.
“If RPCs were to have disregarded basic agronomic practices and norms in such a manner, it would have been called criminal mismanagement. With agricultural best practices now being roundly ignored in favour of a undefined and unplanned strategy “100% organic agriculture”, this historic, and intentionally misinformed self-sabotage is being repackaged as visionary and progressive…
“Regardless of short-term political expediency, reality has a way of asserting itself…With insufficient balanced nutrients as a result of the unplanned push for organic, we anticipate a series of cascading failures stemming from a collapse in productivity. No amount of rhetoric will be able to turn back the tide of negative sentiment against such developments.”
Less than a year later, all that we have stated has come to pass. Agricultural productivity in Export crops has dropped by 20%. While export values of tea and rubber have increased, volumes have plummeted by 20% and 30% respectively. Had we been able to maintain production at pre-fertilizer ban levels, we estimate additional export earnings of US$240 M from plantation-related exports.
These shortcomings are reflected in Sri Lanka’s humiliating bankruptcy, and its crippling 54.6% inflation and deadly 81% food inflation. As a result, today the World Food Programme estimates that 3 in 10 Sri Lankans – 6.7 million Sri Lankans – are now facing severe food insecurity. For context, one of the worst famine’s in modern history was the Bengal Famine, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3 million Indians. If we allow any further blunders, these are the dangerous waters in which we are now swimming.
Meanwhile, the overnight 100% organic agriculture experts, the doctors and monks whose sole concern was for the health and well-being of all Sri Lankans are nowhere to be seen or heard from. And it is left to the once vilified professionals and academics to now chart a roadmap out of crisis and restore the industry on which more than 10% of our national population depend on for their sustenance.
A common framework for progress
Solving this complex misadventure is going to be extremely challenging, but we do believe it’s possible. And we believe the plantation industry will have an essential role to play in this difficult and necessary journey.
However in order to do so, we must acknowledge and examine all of the decisions that led us to this terrible low point. Moving forward, we need to appoint a Sectoral Task force – made up of credible industry experts, whom the Government must consult, particularly when formulating policy decisions that have the potential to impact the entire agriculture sector. Failure to do so even at this late juncture will risk even further irreversible damage being done to our industry and the millions of lives that are impacted by it.
This means that the Government in particular needs to commit to a strict regime of evidence-based policy at all times. If drastic policy adjustments are required, the Government has to take a consultative approach, seek out balanced and credible opinions, and obtain broad approval from stakeholders.
With this common agreement in place, we can finally begin to bring together the best minds in our respective industries and work in partnership towards developing a viable roadmap for a sustainable path to a true Sri Lankan economic renaissance. As Sri Lanka’s first true export industry, we believe the Sri Lankan plantation industry should be the first to take up this challenge.
For over a decade, our industry has painstakingly sought to articulate what the plantation sector requires to move forward. At present, the consensus is that reforms, investment, and knowledge sharing are most needed in our industry are in the areas of:
Sustainable, progressive productivity-linked wages that benefit workers and companies
Agricultural and operational best practices
Research and development towards greater local value addition
Factory, and supply chain modernization
Implementation of a consistent, science-based national agriculture policy framework
We call on all those with the knowledge and expertise to join us in this difficult and long over-due enterprise.
Abouts the Author:
Dr. Roshan Rajadurai is the Managing Director of the Plantation Sector of Hayleys PLC (which comprise Kelani Valley Plantations, Talawakelle Tea Estates and Horana Plantations). A former Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, Dr. Rajadurai has 36 years of experience in the plantation sector.
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