Showtime for Sri Lanka’s century old tea industry

A renovated old tea factory is now housing the one of the most unique industry related museums for tea close to the Kandy town. The venture is supported by all tea related industry associations with some of them extending even financial support.

Its promoters say the museum is part of efforts to lift the industry image and create stickiness for local teas.

Tea industry is tapping the almost one and a half centuries of history at Sri Lanka’s plantations to boost its marketing effort.

Hand operated tea rollers like this called the “little giant” was used around a century ago have been replaced by larger electrically operated ones even in the smallest factories.

A retired planter Dharmasiri Madugalle functions as the curator of the museum.

“This is the first folder made by John Walker in 1880. About 50 pound withered leaves is put inside and two men operated it,” Madugalle explains showing a machine called the Little Giant.

People can only see the ‘little giant’ at the Ceylon tea museum on the Hantana hills overlooking Kandy.

The unique museum is housed in an abandoned four-story tea factory.

He visited tea estates around the island searching for old machinery and other items used in tea industry to be displayed in the museum.

“We wanted to show the world how tea was manufactured in those days. Today you get a lot of modern machinery. Here we have got real old machinery and we have achieved a lot. People have realized how difficult it was to manufacture tea those days. Those days only six grades were made. Now 28 grades are made,” says Madugalle.

The museum’s promoters say they are particularly excited about the exposure the industry is getting among school children.

“Until very recently school children school children knew hardly anything about tea industry in Sri Lanka. After setting up of the museum children are coming in hundreds. They are taking notes. I am sure very soon tea industry will be well-known among our school children,” says Ajit Goonetilleke, Chairman, Tea Museum.

Kids like Sandini Wijayasiri, who was on a visit for the first time says she is going to tell her friends about the museum.

Children like Sandini have grown up in an era where tea export earnings didn’t impact Sri Lanka’s economic growth unlike two decades ago.

Tea exports were the top earner for decades till they were displaced by apparels.

Tea’s significance waned as years of underinvestment and bad working conditions saw people leaving estate jobs for better ones in the city.

But mechanization and higher investments after privatization saw yields improve and with it the earnings of plantation companies.

In 1995 Sri Lanka exported 240 million kilograms of tea earning Rs. 24 billion.

By last year earnings had increased to Rs. 74 billion.

While part of the increase is due to depreciation of the rupee against dollar production has also improved by a fifth mainly because of higher productivity.

The one hundred and forty year old industry here has very few locally owned tea brands and tea as a lifestyle drink has been overtaken by coffee.

Ironically, local growers planted tea after blight destroyed coffee plantations.

A few local brands have marketed tea as a lifestyle drink charging premiums for packaging and marketing.

Promoters think the museum in a small way is helping market the product.

“We are getting a lot of foreign tourists here. When they come and see that it is all about tea they go to the restaurant on the fourth floor to have tea,” Goonetilleke says.

Orthodox tea is served at the fourth floor restaurant.

Although Sri Lanka has made a name as an orthodox tea exporter value added forms of tea like ‘iced tea’ and ones with higher caffeine doses are popular in markets abroad.

The tea museum however is firmly focused on the past when pioneers had to use a mill to drive the factory as electricity was not available in mountainous areas.

“This Petton produces about 42 HP which was enough to run the factory. The smaller one produces about 110 V DC,” Madugalle goes on explaining about the exhibits.

Factories don’t depend on mountain streams for power anymore but the manufacturing process hasn’t changed in over a century.

Orthodox tea that is manufactured in most local factories is also brewed in the same way it was done a century ago.

But people don’t have time to do it anymore accept for in newer markets like the CIS countries and the Middle East.

Western markets earlier dominated by Ceylon tea have switched to coffee.

-Roshan Ranasinghe: roshan@vanguardlk.com