When Merrill Joseph Fernando was born in 1930, he was a colonial subject of the British Empire. His homeland, the island of Ceylon, produced rubber, cinnamon, and Ceylon tea. Tea production was under the control of the British who had established large plantations and controlled the process, from planting to packaging to store shelves.
Although Fernando had considered law school, he began work in the tea trade. He was among the first group of Ceylonese to go to London to study tea tasting, a profession then dominated by British expatriates. In London, he began to realize that the finished product was more financially beneficial to the European corporations than the workers in the now-independent Ceylon who were handpicking and producing tea in the traditional manner.
In 1962, Fernando established his own bulk-tea export business, Merrill J. Fernando & Company, becoming the first exporter to ship Ceylon tea to the former Soviet Union, and establishing a strong relationship with buyers in Australia. The 1960s were a period of consolidation and commodification as large multinational companies forced many family-owned businesses to sell or go bankrupt. Discounting and cheaper prices had turned Ceylon tea into a commodity.
“The mixing of tea (blending) worried me at the time,” Fernando told the Sri Lanka Sunday Times in 2013. ”Ceylon Tea at the time had 30-40 percent of non-Ceylon origin tea … it occurred to me that eventually foreign packers would drop Ceylon Tea altogether or use just a little bit.”
In 1971, Fernando bought his first tea plantation and the following year, Ceylon was officially renamed Sri Lanka. By 1988, he was finally ready to produce his own, single-blend tea. He was determined to change the exploitation of his country’s crop by the multi-nationals and began offering, as the Dilmah website describes, “producer-owned, garden-fresh, unblended, and ethically produced single origin tea.”
Fernando named his tea Dilmah, after his two sons. The success of Dilmah in the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand meant that there was a market for specialty teas whose production was based on very high quality and a commitment to ethical production.
His mother often told him, he said, that if he were successful, it was his obligation to share those benefits with his workers and the less privileged in his community. At the heart of Dilmah, Fernando says, is the commitment to making business a matter of human service.
A tenth of the profits made by the Dilmah tea companies are directed towards community and social uplift programs carried out by the MJF Charitable Foundation. Among its many activities, the Foundation has awarded scholarships to students from the tea plantations, provided assistance to families and war widows in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and provided differently abled children with education, therapy, and training. Foundation resources are now shared and used for environmental conservation efforts carried out by Dilmah Conservation.
In 2010, Fernando, the Dilmah family, and its partners issued a declaration which states:“We have pioneered a comprehensive commitment to minimizing our impact on the planet, fostering respect for the environment and ensuring its protection by encouraging a harmonious coexistence of man and nature. We believe that conservation is ultimately about people and the future of the human race, that efforts in conservation have associated human well-being and poverty reduction outcomes. These core values allow us to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations of sustainability.”