Tea industry’s performance in 2018 and prospects for 2019

By Forbes and Walker Tea Brokers



Year 2018 began with a lot of optimism in the backdrop of an excellent year (2017) that was witnessed in terms of tea prices. The first quarter commenced on a high, with the quarterly auction average being recorded as the highest ever. However, as the year progressed, the Sri Lankan tea industry had to face numerous obstacles.

Consequent to banning of glyphosate by the Government of Sri Lanka, tea growers and large plantations, in particular, were forced to use alternative products for the control of weed growth, resulting in MCPA levels higher than permitted for exports to Japan.

As the year unfolded, purchases from Japan declined due to purchases/shipments being made only following prior testing for chemical residue levels. This brought about a market – unrelated to quality – with greater emphasis on the MCPA levels and its suitability for the Japanese market. 

In and around May, US sanctions on Iran were imposed which had a cascading impact on Auction prices in Colombo, particularly for the Low Grown (Tippy) teas. There was some optimism for tea prices to turn around towards June/July following the strengthening of oil prices and the weakening of the Sri Lankan Rupee. However, this too did not work out to be a reality following the weak economies in most Middle Eastern countries and Russia, resulting in currencies in the importer countries also depreciating against the US Dollar. 

During the second half of 2018, there was ample evidence of global production increasing significantly, primarily due to increased production in the African region. These increases did not reflect too adversely on Colombo Auction prices, as most of the increase comprised of CTC teas.

After much deliberation, stakeholders were successful in negotiating with the Government of Sri Lanka to remove the glyphosate ban through a Special Gazette dated 11 July 2018, a welcome relief to the industry. However, the modalities have taken a considerable period of time for these shipments to be available for the plantations on a regulated basis.

Commencing around September 2018, the Sri Lankan Rupee began to show a significant devaluation against the US Dollar, which possibly to some extent made Sri Lankan tea prices attractive to importers. Since then, we have seen reasonable momentum although the current Auction price levels are below the corresponding sales of last year by approximately Rs. 50 or $ 0.27 per kg. Cumulative Colombo Auction average up to the penultimate sale stood at Rs. 619.11 compared to Rs. 582.17 in 2017, a variance of Rs. 37 per kg.  A synopsis of the tea industry’s performance during the year 2018 is set out below.

The first quarter commenced with auction volumes maintaining 6-7 M/kg and as customary with the onset of the dry weather (end February), Auction volumes declined to 6 M/kg and below. 

During the period under review, total tea production was 73.8 M/kg compared to 66.8 M/kg in 2017, an increase of 7 M/kg (10%). All elevations recorded a gain, with the High and Medium Growns gaining more significantly.

Auction averages in the months of January/February continued to show further improvement on the corresponding period in 2017. Commencing March 2018, auction averages in all elevations began to record significant negative variances compared to the corresponding period in 2017. Buoyant prices maintained in the first two months helped the quarterly total auction average to show a gain of Rs. 21.74 over the corresponding period in 2017. 

Earnings from tea exports remained more or less static compared to the corresponding period in 2017 – Rs. 68.8 million in 2018 vis-à-vis Rs. 68.4 million in 2017.

The second quarter commenced with auction volumes maintaining at 6M/kg and increasing to7.5-8 M/kg by mid-May.

During the period under review, tea production declined 6.1 M/kg (6.8%) in comparison to the corresponding quarter in 2017. Interestingly, April/June showed a significant negative variance, whilst May recorded a 10% increase compared to May 2017.  Auction averages continued to decline with Medium Growns, in particular, recording the sharpest drop, quarter-on-quarter with a negative variance of Rs. 44.38. Consequently, the cumulative position eroded to a negative variance of Rs. 11.78 by end June. 

Earnings from tea during the period was recorded at Rs. 56.8 billion, marginally below the Rs. 57.7 billion in 2017. 

Third quarter commenced with auction volumes around 7 M/kg, which declined gradually and dropped to a low of 5.5 M/kg by end September sales. 

Tea production which totalled 64.5 M/kg vis-à-vis 76.3M/kg in the corresponding period in 2017, recorded a 11.7 M/kg negative variance (15%). 

Tea prices continued to weaken further with the total Auction average declining to Rs. 536.69 vis-à-vis Rs. 610.28 during the corresponding period in 2017 (11%).

Exports totalled Rs. 58.7 billion compared to Rs. 63 billion in 2017, a negative of Rs. 4.3 billion (7%). 

Interestingly, cumulative earnings up to end October totalled Rs. 192.4 billion vis-à-vis Rs. 194.3 billion in 2017, a negative of Rs. 1.9 billion (1%). 

Fourth quarter – Resulting in the production deficit as at end September, auction offerings during the fourth quarter under review, ranged between 5-5.5 M/kg in the early part and 6.5-7 M/kg in the latter part. 

The latest tea production statistics available for the month of October totals 29.6 M/kg versus 25.7 M/kg in 2017 (an increase of 3.8 M/kg – 14%).  

Considering that production up to October totals 251 M/kg and assuming that production in November/December would remain static around the 2017 figures, notwithstanding the labour unrest on plantations in the month of December and the curtailment of tea production, Sri Lanka is likely to achieve the 300 M/kg mark. A reasonable recovery from the disastrous 2nd and third quarters.

Comparison of auction averages continued to reflect significant negative variances vis-à-vis the corresponding period in 2017. Interestingly, auction averages during this period (fourth quarter) up to the penultimate sale of the year shows fair improvement on third quarter achievements. Details of which are set out in Table 1.

Sri Lanka macroeconomic update


We report below the key indicators of the economy.

Economic Growth:

As at the time of writing, we have only the results of the first half of the year. The overall annual growth is still around the same levels as were seen in the past couple of years. It is indeed promising to note that the Agriculture Sector has performed extremely well during the year, after two disastrous years. However, unfortunately, the Industrial Sector growth rates have declined significantly compared to 2017 and 2016, and the overall growth could not be accelerated beyond the present level. 

Agriculture Sector growth rates in the first two quarters of 2018 have seen a remarkable increase when compared against the previous two years. Paddy production can be identified as the major contributor for overall growth in the Agriculture Sector.


Inflation as measured by the National Consumer Price Index (NCPI) was 0.9% in September 2018 and the 12 month annual average inflation as at end September 2018 was 4%. The rate of inflation in 2018 is lesser than 2017 where it was at 8.6% and the 12 month annual average inflation as at September stood at 6.8%. The NCPI was updated with 2013 kept as the base year and we have now seen a cumulative 24.4% increase in prices. It is to be noted that year 2017 was one of the highest contributors to this increase.

(Source – Central Bank of Sri Lanka/Department of Census and Statistics)


Interest Rates:

The treasury bills rates have increased in 2018 against 2017. And the average prime lending rates by banks too have increased gradually. However, bank deposit rates have declined over the last year. 

Exchange Rates:

The Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) depreciated against the major tea importing country currencies during the year. However, it appreciated against the Turkish Lira and remained the same for the Iranian Riyal.

Outlook for 2019

Predicting the market outlook for the year 2019 at this juncture amidst much uncertainty seems a hard task. Nonetheless, a logical approach would be to analyse the supply/demand scenarios that exist and project possible market scenarios based on the most recent developments in importer countries. In analysing the supply situation, it would be relevant to segregate CTC and orthodox tea production. Yet another factor that needs due consideration is the growing demand for tea in producer countries, which may leave lesser exportable volumes. 

Global production, in all probability, may show growth in 2018 once statistical data has been tabulated, which would essentially be of CTC origin. Orthodox tea production could be considered in short supply considering the decline in Sri Lankan tea production commencing 2016. 

Sri Lankan tea production in 2019, consequent to the Government’s decision to lift the ban on the use of glyphosate (weedicide) is likely to give much relief to the producers and in particular, to the large-scale plantations which would be able to carry-out the required agricultural practices to achieve the full potential of the plantations. Further the Government’s decision last month – to allow a more liberal policy on fertiliser – should contribute favourably. Needless to say, subject to extreme weather conditions not being a reality. However, ageing tea bushes and low productivity levels would be a downside. 

Similarly, India with its aged plantations is unlikely to show any significant improvement in its output. On the other hand, Kenya with its steady growth in production in the past several years is poised to achieve a 500 M/kg in 2018 and is likely to play a significant role when assessing the total global supply situation. 

Demand growth in China and India, considering the magnitude of these two markets, is likely to influence prices and consumption is expected to outstrip production. USA too could be singled out as a fast-growing market, particularly for instant tea and iced tea segments, whilst imports from Sri Lanka to the US have shown quite a significant growth in 2018.

Other factors that are likely to impact Sri Lankan tea prices

  • As highlighted elsewhere in this report, Colombo Auction prices have shown a significant appreciation in the fourth quarter on the third quarter, particularly in respect of Leafy orthodox teas.
  • Further, the first quarter traditionally is a low cropping period with enhanced product quality from most producer countries. This scenario will augur well for Small Leaf liquoring varieties that would be on offer.  
  • Another important factor that might influence tea prices is the variation in exchange rates. The Sri Lankan Rupee, which was under severe pressure at the commencement of 4th quarter 2018, stabilised somewhat towards mid-December. If this trend is reversed and the previous depreciation pattern that was seen a couple of months ago is a reality, this too would help Colombo Auction prices in rupee terms. 
  • Improved demand from Iran following the recent indications that tea would not be featured on the list of items attracting US import sanctions.
  • Importers of orthodox teas are likely to have lower inventory levels in the backdrop of deficits accumulated since 2015.

These factors would enable us to predict an upward movement in prices, particularly in the first half for most varieties of orthodox teas. The market demand for teas thereafter, would greatly depend on how the global tea industry would progress during the first half. As we have periodically highlighted, market demand for good quality teas would command a premium consistently throughout the year. 




Tea Trends

Several 2018 beverage trends bode well for the tea business as it is very well positioned for today’s health-focused consumers. The fastest growing segment in tea is ready-to-drink, while tea bags represent 44% and Loose Leaf accounts for less than 1%. While coffee is clearly trending among millennial and Generation Z consumers, tea is also seeking to reinvent itself among the younger generations.

China Buys Indian Black Tea

India increases tea exports to China with an order for US$ 1 million in black tea recently. Year-on-year growth in tea sales was 29% in 2017 with China paying US$ 25 million for approximately 9 million kilograms of Indian tea. China is now India’s 10th largest tea export destination. 

Top industry expert challenges planters to create strong brand, use technology

Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) Protem Chairman Dr. Rohan Fernando


                  Highlights brand ‘planter’ depends on how industry enhances its value 
                  Questions stakeholders if they have changed enough or should they change 
                  significantly moreBelieves plantation industry would be attentive, take steps to avoid being whitewashed
                  Describes planters as ‘managers of resources’
                  Raises concern over lack of female participation at higher plantation management.


In a thought-provoking speech Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) Protem Chairman Dr. Rohan Fernando challenged the planters to create a strong brand in the next 50 years, making use of the momentum of the fourth industrial revolution; while insisting the stakeholders what happened with railroads should not happen to the plantation industry.

Addressing at the 164th Annual General Meeting of PA, he highlighted that the brand ‘planter’ lies in how the industry enhances its value.

“The tea industry is 150 years old. If you compare the plantation industry, how have we moved with the changes or industrial revolutions that have taken place in the past 150 years? What value do we contribute to the society? Economy? When we are seeing such revolutionary changes not globally, but locally, I always wonder have we changed enough or should we change significantly more?” he left a room packed with planters from all parts of Sri Lanka unanswered.

He cited global hospitality, travel, e-commerce industries and local e-classroom initiative in rural school to empower children as great instances where technology has been adopted to a great extent to transform the landscape of doing business platforms and learning experiences. 

Pointing out that today life is all about brands and adopting to changes in the market place, Dr. Fernando was hopeful that plantation industry would be attentive and take necessary steps to avoid being whitewashed. 

“Kodak and Xerox didn’t adopt to the changes and was whitewashed from their industries. Hence, I hope you will think twice of what we should do in plantation industry. How much has our industry changed? Do we want radical changes in our industry? I think what happened with railroads should not happen to the plantation industry,” he emphasised.

“I am sure that all of you will agree that none of us are growing tea, rubber, coconut or palm oil — we are all managers of resources. We manage people, land, environment, water, so on and so forth. How we add value amidst the changes that we see all over the world, which is today hitting us in our face will be our future,” he cautioned. 

Dr. Fernando asked if the industry wants to tell the next generation planters also on the centuries outdates old school methods or to tell that we used the momentum of the industrial revolutions which they have been part and parcel of to make a difference in the plantation sector in Sri Lanka. 

He was also intrigued by the fact that Sri Lanka’s plantation industry has been dominated by male workers for centuries, while there is a significant mix of genders in other industries.

“We planters are thoroughly male dominated. There is no single lady or single doraisani or periyadoraisani amongst us. Is that because we have let ourselves dominate this profession or is it because we haven’t opened ourselves out to female professionals? Because almost every profession today there are very successful females, take doctors lawyers, architects, pilots, bus drivers, train drivers you name it, there is a very good mix of ladies, politicians for that matter. So, is there anything wrong with us? I was just thinking,” he stressed.



Daily Ft, 03rd October 2018.

Minister of Plantation Industries Navin visits Poland

The Minister of Plantation Industries Navin Dissanayake visited Poland from 11 to 13 September. The purpose of the visit was to explore new ways and means to promote the Ceylon Tea Market share in Poland and to strengthen economic relations between the two countries.

During the visit, Minister Dissanayake met with the Polish State Minister of Agriculture P. Gizynski with the aim to intensify cooperation in the agriculture sector between the two countries. They had detailed discussions on a range of issues, including intensifying up the level of trade with agri-food products, signing a MOU in the field of agriculture, improving scientific and technological cooperation in agriculture, assisting in water management technology in Sri Lanka, and supporting specialised potato farms in Sri Lanka. 

The Minister also had a productive meeting with Deputy Minister of Entrepreneurship and Technology Marcin Ociepa to explore the possibility of developing trade and technology services to benefit both Poland and Sri Lanka. The discussions focused on expanding cooperation in the sectors of rural development, agriculture, tourism, education, and water management, technical assistance for boat manufacturing, exchanging trade delegations, and opening of the Polish Trade Agency in Colombo.

In addition, Minister Dissanayake met with a leading Polish investor, Andrzei Zarajczyk, Chairman of URSUS, a manufacturer of tractors, agriculture machinery and buses in Poland who played a crucial role in the development of agriculture in Poland and other countries in the twentieth century. At the meeting, Chairman Zarajczyk stated that he is willing to start detailed discussions on the implementation of either an Agriculture Mechanization Project (tractors), or an environmentally friendly Public Transportation Project (electric buses) or possibly both projects in order to provide Sri Lanka with modern solutions in the agriculture and public transportation sectors. Both parties agreed to consider different and flexible methods and solutions to suit the Sri Lankan people. 

Since Poland is among the highest tea consumers in Europe, the Minister met with major players of the tea trade in Poland both individually and at a business meeting held at the Embassy of Sri Lanka to discuss details of the tea trade. The meeting included representatives from Dilmah, Basilur, and Impra tea companies. 

Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Poland Tissa Wijeratne, Plantation Ministry Addl. Secretary Wickramasinghe and Sri Lanka Tea Board Director Hasitha de Alwis accompanied the Minister during the visit. 


Daily Ft, 26th September 2018.

India’s June tea crop down 3.8%

MUMBAI (Reuters): India’s tea production in June dropped 3.8% from a year earlier to 142.70 million kg as plucking fell in the second-biggest tea-producing eastern state of West Bengal, the State-run Tea Board said yesterday.

West Bengal’s output in June slumped 14.5% to 40.86 million kg, the Board said. The country’s tea output in the first half of 2018 fell 4.6% from a year ago to 432.46 million kg, it said.

India, the world’s second-biggest tea producer, exports CTC (crush-tear-curl) grade mainly to Egypt, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, and the orthodox variety to Iraq, Iran and Russia. 


Daily FT, 16th August 2018.

Tea industry sans glyphosate?

By Gamini Weerasinghe


After the recent landmark order delivered by a court in San Francisco, US, where cancer patient Dewayne Johnson, who was ruled to have developed the disease through regular contact with  glyphosate, was awarded compensation of $ 289 million (Rs. 46,529 million), another 5,000 cases have been filed by victims against Monsanto, the producers of  glyphosate in the US.  


Portugal and the city of Vancouver in Canada have banned the weedicide. Even in the EU views on whether to use glyphosate or not are divided with France and Belgium opposing it and Germany and Poland being lukewarm about its dangers.  

Current glyphosate-resistant crops includesoy, maize (corn), canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, cotton and wheat. Produced in the US, they were genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. This glyphosate resistance enables farmers to wipe out most weeds from the fields without damaging their crops but cannot prevent the herbicide from being absorbed into edible crops and produce. 

It was also reported that Prof. Channa Jayasumana of Rajarata University, along with others, is looking to file legal action seeking compensation for victims in Sri Lanka. 

In all probability, litigation will snowball worldwide and the producing companies might put up their shutters. US sanctions against Iran and the crisis over Turkey’s currency the Lira has impacted Colombo tea auction prices. All point to the grey clouds that are looming for the tea industry. Let us reach out for the umbrellas and unfold them. 

In this scenario, it would be prudent to do research and plan to face any eventuality in case there is no glyphosate. The recent ad hoc decision to ban the weedicide in Sri Lanka resulted in great losses for the tea industry. It is incumbent upon the Tea Research Institute (TRI) and other research institutes to come up with solutions and alternatives in the event of such an eventuality. 

There are only very few planters of the pre-weedicide era of the 1960s who are still up and about. I am fortunate to be one of them and I even attended the launch ceremony of the product at Hotel Topaz in Kandy in 1976. 

Prior to the advent of weedicides, all weeding, which is a non-productive activity, was done manually. Usually it was given out on contract and paid for monthly. The normal rate was four workers per acre (10 workers per hectare). There were contractors who kept their contracts very clean. I wonder whether this practice would be economically viable and also whether workers could be induced to take on contracts. 

The old planters in that decade were very particular about the adage ‘one month’s seed is six months’ weeds’. A weed seed can stay alive for 30 years until the proper conditions conducive to its growth are made available, usually when the soil is disturbed. My superintendent at the Mattakelle Estate, Talawakelle, Derrick Brown, insisted that the soil should not be disturbed to expose the hidden devils.  He introduce a small-three pronged implement just to remove the weed. The high profits of Mattakelle were due to the foresight of securing and nurturing the top soil. The estates that have used mammotees or ‘shorandies’ have lost their top soil with disastrous consequences.  

The areas that are exposed to sunlight, and thus produce most of the seed, are the ravines and roadsides. I planted pasture grass in all these areas and it should be noted that my estate recoded the lowest cost in weeding across the whole regional board while the second lowest was three times my cost. Somebody cut the pasture grass which had covered the ravines and produced much-needed milk.

It is also necessary to cover the ground so as to starve the weed of sunlight. Here a great amount of concentration and discipline is needed in plucking so as to establish the cover by tending to the side branches. 

Again, to restrict the sunlight, proper shade should be established and maintained.  I have planted Dadaps and Gliricidia at 5’X 5’ and lopped one row every three months. This provides the same amount of sunlight to the tea bush and covers the ground with its branches and thatch.  Gliricidia gives 2-3% nitrogen from its lopping. Glyphosate was first introduced to tea cultivation in the 1980s for the control of problem weeds such as Couch (Panicum Ripen) Illuk grasses. Higher dosages of glyphosate (36%) at 11 and 5.5 litres in 600 of water per hectare were recommended to control Couch and Illuk grasses, respectively.   

It was never envisaged at that time to be used for the control of all weeds. Around that time I found that Bracharia Brizantha has an allopathy to cootch grass and that this pasture grass kills the troublesome Couch. The findings were acknowledged by the TRI and there was also a mention in international magazine Farming of Netherland. 

The best way to improve the soil is to have livestock as demonstrated by Mark Bostock on Aislaby. In fact, one person, Shelton Perera, proprietor of Blinkbonny Estates, even used sheep to graze on the weeds in the tea fields and on another estate they used pigs.

Demonstrations in France


At this time there is something to think about for ‘C’ category fields which eat into the profits of an estate. Land is a great asset that cannot be produced. Let us make the best use of it. Use the land and concentrate on the good tea and the balance can be diversified for more profitable ventures. It will also solve the problem of a shortage of labour on most estates for the coat has to be cut according to the cloth available. 


The most common areas that propagate weed seeds on an estate are the ‘C’ category fields with their lack of ground cover due to the poor stand and debilitated bushes. The top soil has been washed way.


It is seen from the records given that about 20-25% of the income derived from tea is spent on the importation of milk and milk foods that can easily be produced in this country.   

It was also stated that we need only 400,000 cows at the present level lits/cow/day of 3.2 to be self-sufficient in milk. It can also be seen from the chart produced that during the last decade we have lost 800,000 heifers (female calves), which would have made Sri Lanka self-sufficient in milk and save 20-25% of the foreign exchange earned through tea. 

The daily manure production of a cow is about 15-20 kg of dung at 4-5% Nitrogen and around 7-10 litres of urine which will improve the soil. 

The Government has given every encouragement to the dairy farmers to improve the industry by giving soft loans from the Central Bank and the Ministry of Social Welfare and Primary Industries. The TRI has advised me that if fodder/pasture is to be planted it is not necessary to uproot the tea. The Department of Animal Health and Production is on record saying that the next profitable crop after potatoes is grass which costs about Rs. 1.80 per kg and I know that Hatton dairy farmers are purchasing fresh grass at Rs. 4 with the transport on the buyer’s account. The grass they get is of low quality. It would cost about Rs. 500,000 to plant a hectare of grass and a harvest of 40,000-60,000 kg/ha/year can be obtained from Hybrid Napier grass of CO3 or Bana. 

There is a question as to whether the tea industry can survive with competition worldwide as can be seen from the chart below.  Sri Lanka also does not produce adequate CTC teas where there is global demand. The COP is also the highest among all producing countries. It can be noted that only 17% of the total exports of tea in the world now come from Sri Lanka while other countries, especially African countries, are forging ahead. Some of them do not use any weedicides at all as plenty of cheap labour is available for manual weeding.  

Cinnamon, spices and fruits

Sri Lankan Cinnamon, which is a coumarin-free product, is in great demand. It is the only cinnamon that is allowed to be imported to the European market.  

There are many others spices like ginger, turmeric, vanilla and fruits like avocado, jak, marmalade oranges, grapefruit, soursop and the like that could be planted on these lands with economic advantage.  

The tea industry and the planters have weathered many a storm during the last 150 years and it is hoped that it will rise to the occasion once again. 

(The writer is a former planter with 38 years’ experience. He was the Deputy Director General of SLSPC, Director of JEDB and consultant to NLDB. He can be contacted on 0718387895 or through This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).


Daily FT, 21st August 2018.

Pothotuwa Tea Factory excels once again

Pothotuwa Tea Factory achieved yet another all-time record price of Rs. 1,400/- for a Low Grown BOPF grade for the third successive week, and surpassed its achievement of last week’s record price of Rs. 1,300 at the Tea Auctions held on 14 August. 

This line of tea too was marketed by M/s Forbes & Walker Tea Brokers Ltd. 


Daily FT, 16th August 2018.

About F&W

Forbes & Walker was set up in 1881 as a partnership between James Forbes and Chapmen Walker. Although there is no actual record of the date on which it was established the very first cash book, still in the possession of the Finance Director, indicates the brokerages were earned from 1st August 1881. In Sir Thomas Villiers' book “Mercantile Lore” the date of establishment of Forbes & Walker has been put down      Read More...

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