Merrill Fernando, the giant of Pure Ceylon Tea who single handedly created a national dream so much bigger than what one solitary human being could muster – and pulled it off to perfection, passed away peacefully on July 20, 2023. He witnessed his biography being launched in May this year to commemorate his 93rd birthday. He worked till the last and with the same diligence that he exhibited for seventy three years of his working life of which seven decades were in tea. For a brief while at around age 22 he had a rendezvous with the oil industry working for the Mobil oil company as supervisor.
Despite the attractive financial rewards, he quit and returned to his first love – tea - becoming a one man institution on globalising the authentic taste of Pure Ceylon Tea. Young Merrill had at the outset abandoned the teenaged ambitions of being a lawyer, submitting his application to a call announced by the Tea Controller in 1950 recruiting locals as tea tasters. Tea tasting was a domain held steadfastly in the hands of the British, as did the tea industry in much of the post independent years.
His first indoctrination in the tea industry as a whole was at Heath and Company, the largest exporter of tea at the time to Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, South Africa and Iraq. Soon he was offered a training opportunity in London at J. L. Lyons, the then UK tea giant.
The foundation upon which he built his brand Dilmah was cemented with his entry, at around age 23, into A. F. Jones, a British owned family business A. F. Jones & Co. Ltd. The company was owned by the father A. F. Jones and his two sons, Dennis and Alan, providing a harbinger prototype to what his own ‘father-sons’ based company Dilmah would be like two decades later. Being trained in London, the then tea hub of the world he saw that what was passed off for Ceylon Tea were heavily mixed with tea from other parts of the world and what was sold in the world market had little affinity, in taste, with what the soil of his country produced.
He also witnessed first-hand that the way the tea industry operated in England where the massive profits accrued had nothing to do with the betterment of Sri Lanka or its people.
This started in young Merrill the churning of idealism where he promised himself that he would start his own brand announcing single origin 100% pure Ceylon Tea. He dreamt how he would do all the good he could to the lives of the workers who lived and worked in the tea plantations. He wanted to use tea as a route to eradicate poverty and create an ideal world. The few he shared his dreams with thought of him as a dreamy headed youth.
The mission he took upon himself – to resurrect the taste of Pure Ceylon Tea and introduce it to the world market championing Sri Lanka and its people and setting apart billions of rupees for supporting plantation workers, supporting the differently-abled, and promoting youth entrepreneurship and promoting rural education, he would certainly do, some two decades later, after he learnt to combat the power and manipulation that governed the industry. The entire philosophy, ethic, patriotism and philanthropy we see in the brand of Dilmah which is now a household name in the world representing Sri Lanka and 100 percent pure Ceylon tea, was crafted by Merrill Fernando prioritising service and not profit. This is the sole reason that this brand managed to stay far ahead of any conceivable competition. Competition never figured in the mind of Merrill Fernando. He was the type of man who would be joyful if a rival were to do well and forged ahead not to quell others in the industry but towards a vision he developed to integrate tea with all the natural resources of Sri Lanka, to educate Sri Lankans on the need to conserve, promote and benefit from the wealth of medicinal plants and herbs, especially in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He was one of the fervent supporters of this writer’s efforts to educate the public on the use of paramparika traditional medicine (lineage based Sinhala Wedakama), Siddha and Unani, for boosting immunity during the fear psychosis of Corona which was a virus that was mild in itself but attacked the immune system. In a meeting with this writer during this time he volunteered to publish in book form the articles published in the Sunday Observer on the use of traditional medicine for combatting the pandemic, where we had also featured Sinhala Wedakam physicians who were treating Covid-19 patients in less than 3 days and accounts of a physician in Matale developing an oral vaccine which was being ordered by other countries.
In the past three years Dilmah would be the sole tea brand to integrate a stellar range of herb and traditional rural food base into its company identity, innovating beyond compare. This was at a time when the economic crisis was becoming inanely publicised abroad (where it was common to have foreign friends calling to ask if we were starving!) Dilmah once again began resurrecting the dignity of the nation and in one Dilmah event this writer attended this year where among the main speakers were diplomats, a wide range of food innovation products of Sri Lanka were featured alongside internationally crafted tea infused cuisine using rural little heard of grains and leafy goodness.
The most recent mass scale endeavor towards overall sustainability and food security was to identify and promote mainly youth entrepreneurs who were coming up with unique ideas to promote little heard rural edible vegetation using natural food preservation methods. Global chefs were bought to Sri Lanka and these foods promoted. Dilmah has so far supported over two thousand entrepreneurs.
So what does the life of Merrill Fernando teach us about entrepreneurship and industry? It teaches us that entrepreneurship and industry should be created true to one’s conscience and in accordance with the universal law that the intention of doing good, for its sake alone, is the most powerful tool for success.
So, goodbye Merrill Fernando. Thank you for what you have done for Sri Lanka, its people and its natural resources. You have completed your worldly mission. You have created your heaven on earth and now you have left -- to sojourn that which it is said we would merit according to our actions when owning this human body.