Putting misconceptions into perspective.
Posted on July 8th, 2017

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando


A particular planter appeared to have been disturbed for calling the Ceylon Tea Traders Association (CTTA) as the “Apex body of the Industry” in my article on 1 July 2017 on the Sesquicentennial of the Ceylon Tea Industry. He wrote to me enquiring the reason for using such a phrase, stating that the CTTA was created long after the tea industry. Responding to his query, I replied stating that the CTTA was formed 27 years after the commercial cultivation of tea commenced, for the specific purpose of regulating and monitoring the tea trade, at the request of the producers of tea, who were confined to their plantations, and in any case, had no knowledge or experience in the marketing or exporting of the product.

Going deeper into the history of the tea industry, explanations were given to him by the writer as to how the auctions were held privately and haphazardly by individual brokers in their own offices, with no formal uniform set of rules or regulations. By the 1890s the volume of tea produced had grown to a remarkable extent and the growers / manufacturers were dissatisfied with the loose arrangements under which their teas were being handled in Colombo, which had become the main port of the island; hence, their request to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce to set up an institution to oversee this aspect, the CTTA was bestowed as the mantle of ‘Apex Body’ from its inception. I further intimated to him about the CTTA’s celebrations on its anniversary (only a day or two prior to the publication of the article) at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, where its 123rd Annual General Meeting, also followed by cocktails and dinner, attended by over 500 guests from all sectors of the industry.

Apex body

The planter being still dissatisfied with my answer delved further into the subject by maintaining that the CTTA could only be described as the “Apex body for overseeing the sale of tea produced by the growers.” Next he lamented on the levy of Rs 40,000 per head to participate in the event, which according to him had caused “a lot of heart burn of the CTTA members that will lead to ‘shutting out’ so many planters in the participation of the celebrations”. He also pointed an accusing finger at the Organizing Committee for ignoring the estate staff and workers, expressing how they were as important as the planters, towards the survival of the Tea Industry.

Another grievance appeared to be that the CTTA had not planned to commemorate this historic occasion as a ‘corporate’ occasion in the heart of the tea growing areas, instead in the metropolis and on the beaches around Colombo, where “tea will not even grow.” The blame was thrust upon the Organizers asserting it was a creation by those whose existence and prosperity depended on the tea industry.


This misconception was referred to a very Senior Member of the Tea Trade who elucidated the matter in the following manner: “The stakeholders, whose own associations sought affiliation to the CTTA and were graciously granted the opportunity to serve on the CTTA committee, where deliberations and decisions on the entire industry take place, as well as the state institutions and agencies, acknowledge and recognize the CTTA as the apex body of the tea industry is sufficient validation of its position”.

‘The CTTA does not only oversee the sale of tea, but it also has numerous other functions which ensure the well being of the entire industry. Spanning over a 27-year period from the commencement of commercial cultivation of tea on a mere 19 acres up to the point of the formation of the CTTA and the inauguration of the formal public tea auction in Colombo, under an official set of rules and regulations in 1894 the industry developed without any direction or leadership. The first export consignment of tea comprised just 23 lbs and that too was to the London auction. The first private tea auction offered just five invoices of tea, of which only one was sold due to bids not meeting the expectations of the sellers. This was why the producers themselves requested that an institution should be set up to lead the industry as an apex body.

International tea conventions

“The CTTA with representation from all the stakeholders has held international tea conventions in 1966, (nationalisation of plantations accounting for the hiatus) 1992, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2012, all of which were fully subscribed with overseas delegates and local participation from every sector of the industry. The Colombo International Tea Convention has become legendary and is held up as a model by other producing countries that have tried to emulate it, but have fallen far short. The 2017 convention is no different”.

Overseas delegates and local participants are clamouring to attend and, although a maximum limit was placed on numbers, the CTTA was compelled to extend it. There have even been suggestions that it should be moved to a venue that can accommodate larger numbers, like the BMICH. There are no facilities outside Colombo to hold an event of this magnitude and the Organizing Committee believes that it is ridiculous even to suggest that estate staff and workers, other than the planters, would dream of attending, even if given the opportunity to do so at no charge. There are social, cultural and language barriers still prevalent in Sri Lanka, in case Sri Lankan ‘protagonist’ is not aware of, that would make them feel embarrassingly uncomfortable in such circumstances.

In this day and age, Rs.40, 000 per head for four days of business sessions with convention material, complemented by meals and refreshment and social events with entertainment at venues, which necessarily have to be upmarket and conducted exclusively in the English language is not considered excessive. Overseas speakers and presenters, internationally renowned in their respective fields, had also to be brought in and accommodated for the duration of the convention. In fact, it costs much more but has been subsidised by sponsorships. For younger participants (below the age of 35 years), a concessionary rate of Rs 30,000 has been offered. Not only has large representation from RPCs registered to attend, but a great number of private factory owners and even small holders have also done so. A senior member commented that he had “not heard of anyone complaining other than this single individual. Furthermore, his lone voice is not going to change the CTTA’s stature globally, which it has maintained for the past 123 years.

Woeful planter

Unfortunately, this woeful planter does not appear to be aware of the other events planned for the Sesquicentennial. All the proceeds from the Grand Charity Auction will be used on projects for the benefit of the children of the plantation labour. The outreach awareness/educational programme that has been conducted from March will conclude at the end of this month. It has covered rural and plantation areas. All proceeds from the convention will go into the Colombo Tea Traders’ Charity Trust, the accumulated funds of which have been judiciously invested in projects mainly in the plantation areas.

Today the CTTA has over 200 Corporate Members, and every year a chairman is elected – and may be re-elected for a successive term or two. The association’s role has changed quite significantly over the years. In 1962 out of those attending the auction about 60 per cent were British and of other foreign nationalities. Later Prime Minister S. W.R. D. Bandaranaike followed by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake looked into ‘Ceylonising‘ the industry. Therefore, it was in the 1960s that Sri Lankans gradually took over the management of the Tea Industry and CTTA.

There are two major divisions in the Ceylon Tea Industry. Sellers produce the tea and buyers export it. These two sectors were kept as separate entities with good intentions where the brokers coordinated between the two, at the auction. After the nationalisation of tea estates, fragmentation took place within quite a number of privately owned estates, which were handed over to the smallholders. This managed to create the smallholder section that did not have facilities or the capacity in comparison with the plantation companies to manufacture tea. This gave rise to private companies to set up factories, which would use the tealeaves grown by smallholders for manufacture forming the fifth sector of the industry.

Liberalized economy

As time progressed, President J.R. Jayewardene’s government liberalized the economy paving the way for the opportunity of entrepreneurship in the Industry. By that time the British had nearly all left, the very first generation of Sri Lankan managers were in there 40s. Some young and dynamic tea traders who did not wish to mark time before they could climb to the top of the ladder established their own exporting companies, which resulted in a proliferation of exporters expanding the number of growers and manufacturers of tea and the industry, became crowded with competition intensified.


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