I’ve met some pretty amazing people along this blogging journey but my most recent encounter with Dilhan Fernando would have to be the most inspiring, empowering and life changing of them all. I hope this story touches you in some way too.
Dilhan C. Fernando is the ‘Dil’ of the brand ‘Dilmah’ (his brother, Malik, makes up the other half of the brand name), and is of course Dilmah founder Merrill J Fernando’s son. Merrill was meant to join us for a chat as well but he was ill and unable to fly over here.
I’m sure that you’ve seen Dilmah tea on supermarket shelves, lined up against all the Tetley, Nerada, Lipton and Twinnings. The brand itself is not new to most of us and I think at minimum, we’ve all seen the TV ads about quality Ceylon tea which feature Merrill himself.
But there’s actually so much more that goes on behind the brand than meets the eye.
To really understand the effect Dilmah has had across the world, I’m going to need to briefly mention the history of the tea industry.
Tea is a natural herb discovered some 5000 years ago. For centuries, it has been a soothing influence, offering comfort, invigoration, nourishment, inspiration and solace. More recently, scientific research has emphasised the protective and healing properties in tea. Appreciated for the pleasure it offers and its health benefits as a pure and natural drink, tea is the most popular beverage in the world after water.
I came across this quote which I just love – “There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be diminished by a nice cup of tea” Bernard-Paul Heroux
The commoditisation of tea began in the 1920s where there once were 30 – 40 tea companies. Small family-owned tea companies who were passionate and knowledgeable about tea used to compete on quality and taste but sadly with the multi-nationalisation and the trend of growth by acquisition, a handful of transnational corporations eventually dominated with market power and multi-origin blending commenced.
Ceylon (which was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972) had been under colonial rule since the 16th century and by the time it became an independent nation in 1948, it had a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest tea. Its tea however, was always shipped to Britain and auctioned off, allowing the middlemen, who had little or no involvement in the producing of tea to control the marketing and re-exporting aspect of the industry and subsequently reap the bulk of the profits, robbing the producer of a fair chance. Issues of quality and freshness also arose from this as tea would sit for 7 – 12 months at auction houses, absorbing moisture.
Merrill was born in 1930 in the small fishing town of Negombo, on the west coast of Ceylon, 40 kilometres north of the capital city, Colombo. The Fernando’s were a humble middle-class family and the lessons of small community sharing and caring from his childhood are what have shaped Merrill’s business endeavours. Shortly after Britain relinquished governance of Ceylon in 1948, Merrill was selected to be trained as a tea taster and was one of the first Ceylonese to do so. Although only in his late teens, Merrill’s stint in London led him to witness the inequitable and unfair system of trade that had reigned.
Merrill realised that it was imperative that branding and value-addition had to stem from the source country if the industry was to survive – it was the livelihoods of thousands of workers.
Dilhan says that his father’s goal was to bring back control of the country’s destiny.
This really changes perspective when I realise the scale of this industry, which employs over 2 million people, where over 1 million of those are in direct labour.
And despite resistance from local countrymen who were stuck on the British viewpoint that Ceylon should remain a producer of raw material and not involve itself in value-addition, and other challenges, Merrill stuck by his commitment to tea. Dilmah today is the world’s most vertically integrated family tea business and is recognised as one of the top 10 tea brands in the world.
The flavour, texture and character of tea are shaped by variables such as climate and elevation so tea picked from the same field may vary in taste each day!
Dilmah has 36 different tea estates which accounts for about 10% of total Ceylon tea production; the Fernando family is now training its third generation (Dilhan and Malik’s children) of tea makers and mid this year, invited top chefs from across the world to Sri Lanka as part of Dilmah’s Chefs and the Tea Maker Program.
Dilhan highlights that while they now have state-of-the-art printing and packaging facilities, the one thing which hasn’t modernised over the years is their manufacturing and tasting process. An astonishing 7000 – 10000 cups of tea are tasted each week and the efficient manufacturing process can get tea picked from the field, weighted, withered, rolled, fermented and baked, ready for packing in approximately 24 hours. It is then packed at their central packing facility within 2 weeks so freshness, quality and flavour is not compromised.
Dilmah has grown from the impossible and often ridiculed dream of an ordinary Sri Lankan to a brand that is enjoyed in over 90 countries around the world.
Although that in itself is a lovely success story, it is Dilhan’s passionate words about the MJF Foundation which is truly inspiring.
MJF Foundation was established by Merrill who was motivated to ensure that the benefits accrued from the success of Dilmah also flowed through to the plantation industry and its workforce as well as to the community at large and the environment. What stands out about this foundation from others is its focus on long-term sustainability. It empowers individuals, families and whole communities to help themselves.
As an entrepreneur, Merrill has long believed that business is a matter of human service. Keep in mind that he has held this philosophy since the 1960s way before the term corporate social responsibility became a buzzword! It is absolutely fascinating to learn that this one man has physically changed the world. The potency of the idea – “that if every business could be ethical, our world would be a different place” – is extraordinary.
Dilmah still operates as a close-knit family business and Dilhan’s day to day activities cross over between running Dilmah as the Director of Marketing and his work on MJF Charitable Foundation and the Dilmah Conservation. He talks to me about the satisfaction of changing lives, and his passion sparks when he tells me stories of underprivileged children who have recently been helped by MJF Charitable Foundation. He of course knows them all by their names and gives me detailed recounts of each child’s journey. His hands-on, warm approach and mentality on sustainable solutions is heartwarming.
I can’t stress how incredible it is, that through changing one child’s mindset, this foundation is able to change not just his/her life in a tangible way, but also change their successive generations and their likelihood of having a better lifestyle.
And that’s not all they do. MJF Charitable Foundation have also developed childcare facilities for infants and young children of plantation workers, implemented healthcare initiatives for workers and their families, created scholarship foundations to help fulfil the potential of the children of tea pickers, developed other initiatives to empower women and the differently-abled, and my favourite part – assist communities with their S.E.P. (Small Entrepreneur Programme) – where deserving individuals are provided with necessary equipment and funding to launch a vocational-based business, or to improve their existing business.
To date, the programme has supported more than 500 small entrepreneurs which translate into many more lives being brightened and improved. New entrepreneurs that have been helped by the scheme include ayurvedic medical practitioners, carpenters, builders, hairdressers, potters, mushroom farmers, beauty therapists, mobile phone technicians and textile manufacturers.
So as you can probably tell by now, I am beyond inspired, and I think that every business decision I’ll ever make and every cup of tea that I’ll ever drink, will never be the same.
If you feel empowered to do something, the following websites may be of interest:
Teagastronomy / Chefs and the Tea Maker Program
Integritea: a teamaker’s blog
Thank you Dilhan, for taking the time to share Dilmah’s amazing story on passion, integrity and sustainability.
Also special thanks to Teresa from Impressions Marketing Communications for presenting me with the opportunity of meeting Dilhan.