The Premier told a top gathering of planters on Tuesday that the time had come to take over as managers of a value added industry, or lose out to more efficient agro-businesses that would be the industry of the future.
“When you say that your contribution to the economy has fallen, it is true because we have ceased to be a plantation economy
“Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe said, speaking at the 125 year anniversary celebrations of the Planters Association.
“This does not mean that the plantations have no future but we have to look at in the context of agriculture in the 21st century”.
This, he said, could be industries like green house cultivation or animal husbandry that were far more capital intensive than tea but brought in much higher yields.
Other emerging agro-business options were cultivation of new crops like oil palm such as in countries like Malaysia, to be competitive in world markets.
He added that the way forward was to target higher and mid-income sectors and that it was vital the industry break out of the primary producer trap it was in.
“Tea has a future. It will be the drink of the 21st century but not as the primary product that we produce now. We have to complete the full chain and then pack it off”.
Sri Lanka is one of the largest producers in the world, exporting some 300 mn kilos of tea on average each year. But prices in real terms have been stagnant and value addition almost negligible.
Complaints range from low worker productivity, poor rates of replanting and low prices for the product due to commoditisation of tea by international buyers.
“Sri Lanka can be a platform for competitive value addition in the sector. We have the land, the water, the resources and the people. We just have to aim at the upper end of the global market”, Wickremasinghe said.
“It took the Japanese to make green tea ice cream, creating a flavour for Japanese green tea, but what have we done. We still have just the cup”.
Smallholders, accounting for over 60 percent of total output, will remain as out-growers in the whole new supply chain system.
“In the 21st century, you have to get into more value added agro-businesses. We have to modernise, think anew and see what else can be done”.
“It isnt an end for the plantation industry but there must be managers willing to take the risks and think out of the box”, Wickremasinghe said.
It also calls for a serious over-haul of the 150 year old Planters Association to face the emerging changes in the new phase of the industry.
-Zainab Ibrahim: firstname.lastname@example.org