Indian tea industry should take leaf out of book of Merrill Fernando

tea tastingIt is a pity that India does not have a tea-vangelist like Merrill J Fernando, the legendary Sri Lankan who established the now-iconic Ceylon brand Dilmah. In New Delhi to open the first ‘T-lounge’ that his brand already operates successfully in other parts of the world, he must be disappointed that India remains unresponsive to his clarion call to build brands rather than sell cheaply to international aggregators.

He came to ‘convert’ Indian tea producers to his cause – creating indigenous international brands – for the first time nearly two decades ago. He was hailed then – and now – as a hero by the industry here, but did not find anyone who was willing to follow suit and shift from simply producing and trading to building a brand.

Of course since that visit, Tetley and Typhoo – big names in Britain, the country that brought tea cultivation to India – now belong to desi companies. But can these ever be called or even regarded as desi brands? No more than Jaguar can be called an Indian car. And very few people know about their Indian ownership anyway.

The case of tea is not unlike champagne or fine wine. Imagine if France had no known great wine or champagne brands but only supplied its best produce to some international conglomerates for their topend products? It sounds preposterous and silly. But Indians—and Ceylon – have been doing that ever since tea production began.

Only a fraction of French wines and champagnes are truly great but the whole industry gets a boost from the reverence that the grand crus garner. But the great sub-continental teas have always been dragged down to the level of the mediocre varieties that go into making the brews known more for their strength than finesse or flavour.

Only Merrill Fernando took a leap of faith and set up his own tea brand in 1988 to highlight the best that Ceylon could produce, despite widespread pessimism. No wonder he attributes this lack of initiative in our region as a sort of colonial hangover. It could also be because of the risk-averse zeitgeist of the times, in India.

For the longest time, India simply never thought or dreamt big on anything. But now Indian entrepreneurs are going out and conquering the world, stamping Indian brand names on the world’s consciousness. Yet tea remains a curious exception, despite the entry of a new generation of energetic tea owners and entrepreneurs.

We have Cha Bars in metro cities and some boutiques purveying choice teas, but there is no nationwide push to acknowledge much less create awareness of the great varieties of not only India but the region. Coffee-also an Indian staple and equally under-appreciated in the wider world—is cool but not tea.

Tall and still ramrod-straight at 85, Fernando with his grey hair, gentle eyes, ready smile and an attractively humorous way with words, makes for a compelling tea-vangelist. There is no apparent trace of the steel that was undoubtedly required to do what he did. But there is undimmed enthusiasm for tea and local brand building.

His efforts, especially how he diversified and upscaled his brand’s appeal, should be examined and emulated by Indians.

The way he has marketed premium ‘single estate’ (like single malts and wines) teas and carried forward the culture with T-lounges featuring tea-based beverages is inspirational and indicative.

Premium teas from the subcontinent need to carve out their space in the world, championed by entrepreneurs from our own region. When Fernando muses about a international grouping of premium tea producers – perhaps somewhat like the wine and champagne producers of France – it should not be restricted to wishful thinking.

Acknowledged regional tea varieties of Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiris, can only be Made in India. Surely then, building and marketing brands that help these varieties achieve their true value in India and the world – as Fernando has done for Ceylon tea – should also be an integral part of the government’s Make in India initiative.(Economic Times)

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