BBC Good Food Middle East spoke with Merrill J. Fernando, the CEO and founder of Dilmah tea (pictured with his son Dilhan Fernando, who also works for the company). The father and son were in Dubai visiting their new tea lounge at the Pullman Deira Dubai Creek City Centre hotel.
For readers who might not be familiar with the Dilmah brand, could you tell us a bit about your history?
I was inspired to take this journey or mission through witnessing, watching, the exploitation of our plantation farmers and their workers who were paid a meager subsistence, made to live in terrible conditions. Their hard work, commitment, dedication, working from morning until night, created multimillionaires and billionaires outside our country because Sri Lanka was a colony for hundreds of years.
First 150 years colonized by the Portuguese. Another 150 years by the Dutch. Then the third 150 years by the British. They gave us a lot of good things: administration, transportation in the country, et cetera and the tea industry which is a great asset.
But being a colonial power, development of a colony is geared largely at creating benefits and wealth for them in their homeland, in other countries. While we are very grateful that industry was given to us the exploitation of the workers was something that I could not bear. When I saw this kind of thing, but I was not really exposed to the true exploitation [inaudible 00:02:18] I was fortunate enough to find a job as a trainee tea taster and then getting in the tea trade.
How did you get in to the tea business?
I worked for the British for a bit. Then I went to London to see, to understand branding and marketing [of tea] in London. I spent a year there. What I saw there change my whole life.
Ceylon tea is the finest quality you can get in the world. In Sri Lanka we produce Ceylon, we produce a variety of teas from this one plant. Knowledge and expertise we have cannot be replicated because most of it is created by nature, so climate and conditions.
In London, at the marketing end of it, they were mixing Ceylon tea with cheap other things. African, Indonesian, Argentinian, and so forth but marketed them as Ceylon tea. They exploited that to the hill. They exploited plantation workers and they exploited the consumer by mislabelling tea as Ceylon tea for very high prices.
When did you decide to launch Dilmah tea?
When I returned from London I had this thought haunting me, that I should have my own brand of tea and that will give the consumer the finest. Pure quality, very high quality, fresh tea manufactured right at the spot and packed right where it is grown. That could be full of the freshness and antioxidants because the tea would be packed fresh. Other tea is packed in London and by the time the tea reaches the other countries it can be 18 months or two years old. Here we marketed the freshest tea, best quality, and the world’s only ethically produced tea at that time.
Sadly, we are still the only ethically produced tea today. The talk of fair trade is strictly a marketing strategy by an independent body that charges fees. You can have your own brand of tea, you get a contract pack by somebody. Get a fair trade label on that and say this is fair trade. Generally speaking there is nothing fair about it, whatever the trade it is. Whether it is tea, trade squeezes the supply. Squeezes the customer. Its only object is profit. I realized that rather early in life. 34 I was 24 years of age when I went to London and saw all these things. That thought haunted me although I realized all the time this is an impossible dream don’t waste your time. It haunted me for a very, very long time, and 34 years later I launched the company. Dilmah tea represents everything that is best in a healthy beverage.
What do you think sets Dilmah apart from other teas?
When you take a packet of Dilmah tea from Sri Lanka and when you export it to whatever country, export that product as an ethically produced tea with the family’s love and care. Love, care, and passion can only come from a family business.
Tell us a little bit about how you support your employees
The poverty in this world is due to traders who exploit and the retailers on the other side who exploit the traders. My mission was to eliminate poverty, attempt to eliminate poverty among plantation workers. Give them hope of a better life. I took on that mission because I was convinced that that is the way the world should be. The farmer should be paid a fair price, the consumer must have a good quality product.
I look after my workers and try to bring integrity back to tea. At the launch I said I’d bring integrity back to tea, quality back to tea, and freshness back to tea. I would share my earnings with the poor and community.
I started with 18 employees I gave all of their children school books, pencil, shoes, everything for their education plus I gave them scholarships. Right up to university. I did not fear starting to think like that because I was a small player just beginning. 18, 20, 25 people I can manage. Today I have in Dilmah production facility 1,400 workers. We have on plantations about 25,000 workers. All of their children receive all of those things plus more. Education and you know today, the children of workers on plantations through the support of Dilmah are now doctors, lawyers, engineers. Those children would have never seen the inside of a university or a medical college. That is the philosophy of Dilmah.
How do you think other companies could learn from your philosophy?
When I leave this world I can say I did my best to leave this a better place. I wish other businesses would also think like that. If they contributed .5% of their annual profits to the poor there would be no poverty in this world.
Details: Dilmah tea lounge is open daily from 6am-11pm at Pullman Dubai Creek City Centre hotel. For more information, visit the hotel website. If you enjoyed this article, you may like this story on the Dilmah tea lounge launch.