Born in 1930, in the village of Pallansena in South Western Sri Lanka, Merrill J. Fernando hails from a rural, middle class background. Following his early education at Maris Stella College, Negombo he moved to the capital Colombo, seeking better prospects. He wished to become a Tea taster, then the domain of British expatriates who guarded their profession keenly. Merrill was fortunate to be selected to join the first batch of Ceylonese (Sri Lanka was then called Ceylon) to be trained in tea at what was then the ‘Mecca’ of tea – Mincing Lane, London
Whilst at Mincing Lane, Merrill observed the dysfunctional aspects of an industry on which his country relied heavily, and which was exploited by large multinational corporations. Tea, a finished product that was hand picked, produced according to a traditional and artistic process in Sri Lanka, was treated as a raw material and shipped at a nominal value to Europe where value addition, branding and packing took place.
This meant that the producer received a tiny fraction of the profits from the sale of Ceylon Tea, whilst middlemen – mainly a handful of large corporations – benefitted disproportionately. Addressing that inequity has been the fire that has driven Merrill since the age of 20, for more than half a century. He established his Dilmah brand – the first producer owned tea brand – after 38 years of endeavour, and has since championed Integrity – Quality, Freshness, Authenticity and Ethics – in tea.
The tiny, upstart tea company that Merrill formed in 1988 to change the exploitation of his country’s crop by big traders, has today grown to become one of the top 10 tea brands in the world. However as Merrill says, his Dilmah will always be a small, family brand because it represents integrity, and integrity in tea requires quality, commitment and passion. Those are not qualities that can be extended to the mass market.
Merrill J. Fernando is joined in his passion for tea by his sons, Malik and Dilhan, whose names form the Dilmah brand. Together they pursue Merrill’s vision of bringing quality back to tea, with tradition, ethics, and all the health benefits in fresh tea.
The story of Merrill J. Fernando is a remarkable one for it illustrates the exploitation that often characterizes categories that are dominated by big corporations. It also demonstrates the power of fair and just trade in lifting less developed countries out of poverty. Merrill’s love for tea led him to innovate in three very important areas – he launched the first producer owned tea brand in 1988, in his desire to offer authenticity he pioneered the concept of single origin tea, and packing tea garden fresh, at source. These initiatives were not easy for Merrills struggle pitched him against corporations many times the size of his tiny and fledgling business, and it brought him into conflict with his peers and government who did not share his belief that tea could be picked, packed and shipped direct from origin by growers themselves.