Integrity and Trust In Supply Chains

Integrity and Trust In Supply Chains

Our Trade Relations Manager, Lee Holdstock led a study tour to Sri Lanka to explore relationships, trust and the implications for organic integrity.

City of Changes

Midway through the eleven-hour flight to Colombo and a fellow passenger is telling me about her visit to Sri Lanka, to meet distant family and reconnect with her roots. Her destination is Jaffna, an area out-of-bounds when I last visited over a decade ago. In eight hours'-time I would find myself back in a city transformed, the old colonial fortress now hemmed in by the glass and steel of new investment.

As we cruised high above the Indian Ocean, I attempted to explain nature of my visit. I was heading to Sri Lanka to explore connections, not family, but business ones. I wanted to understand whether relationships built on trust might have positive implications for the integrity of organic products. When consumers in the UK buy these products, they are casting a vote for better, healthier food and farming, so it’s vitally important they can be sure products originate from truly organic farming systems.

Certification remains the key tool for checking that standards have been met and when done well, it’s very effective. Longer, more complex supply chains mean that even certified businesses can’t be complacent about future challenges. Those chains where actors have no connection beyond the purely transactional, will perhaps present the biggest challenge of all.

What happens when relationships go beyond the simple movement of, and payment for, goods? Can this support certification, reduce the risk of integrity failure and headaches for organic businesses? Over the next few days I would meet both organic farmers and processors, who would share their thoughts on being organic, where they fit in and why it matters to them. Before I headed for the steamy hill forests of the country’s interior, I first had a duty to dispense here in Colombo, that of keynote speaker at Sri Lanka’s first ever Organic Forum.

Organic ambition

By the time I arrived at Colombo’s ‘Water’s Edge’ centre on the eve of the forum, it was clear that my hosts and sponsors English Tea Shop had significant ambitions for this event, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. Having been given the honor of leading the program, I could only hope that my very UK and European-centric market and consumer insights, would be of interest to the 150 plus delegates.

Back at the Water’s Edge the next day and my contribution was quickly over. As we moved to the panel debate, I found myself joined by an impressive range of expert organic speakers. The impact and true costs associated with poor agricultural practices and how to measure the contribution organic farmers make, were topics all familiar in UK policy circles. There was also significant concern around the impacts of agrochemicals on farmer health and I was intrigued to hear how non-organic farmers reportedly refusing to eat their own produce, favoring that grown by organic growers instead.

English Tea Shop Forum

As discussion moved on it was soon clear that with a substantial proportion of Sri Lankan tourist rupee driven by wildlife experiences, the ‘true’ cost of biodiversity loss could be staggering. As an Island, Sri Lanka is well placed to extricate itself entirely from the grip of chemical agriculture. This has already been done in northern India’s Sikkim province, where the cessation of agrochemical usage has been an enormous success story. The audience seemed warm to a similar ambition for this country and so the seed was sown (or at very least, an idea re-planted). But what of relationships and trust? The massive surprise for me was the familiarity of the challenges, with tea auctions in particular identified as a key obstacle to improving business practice. Given the challenges I had previously experienced in getting a premium for UK organic wool at the UK wool auctions, I found the parallel fascinating.  

“Our initial motivation to go organic was to work outside the auction system, helping us make a direct connection back to farmers”

As a businessman who saw commercial sense in sharing value along the chain, English Tea Shops' CEO, Suranga Herath admits that organic was a way to get to farmers, but that persuading the middle players to buy in to this transparent approach would take five more years.

Organic starts at home

Tuesday morning and I was on the move again, heading now for the Dambula district of central Sri Lanka. Having started at 5:30 that morning, I found myself thinking of the giant reclined Buddha for which the areas is famed (and I confess to being somewhat envious). Having overtaken countless Tuk Tuks and motor cycles, we finally arrived at our first stop. The son of Maarji Herbals founder wasted no time in sharing the story of his 89 customers and the 200 small 2-3 acre farmer to whom they are the vital interconnect. After witnessing painstaking hand grading of cloves and cardamom pods we got down to discussing my favourite topic; relationships and why they matter.


Ensuring that growers are aware of what they need to do to be organic is a priority for Maarji. They do this in conjunction with their customers; organising local gatherings of farmers at the local temple; to add a bit of gravitas. As ETS’s chief blender Sampath explained, this direct relationship between brand, processor and farmers is important to help farmers understand what is required of them, and to improve understanding of growers needs. Having open communication channels builds trust and facilitates quick resolution of any potential integrity issues. It also helps identify opportunities for value sharing, which is more than just passing money along the chain. Direct premiums for producers had been explored, but proved to be complex and unworkable, so other ways to help were identified. One of the most interesting for me involved local school principals encouraging their pupils to start ‘home gardens’. Those who nurture the best gardens are in turn nurtured, ultimately forming the next generation of organic growers.

The venerable Gamunu

Having witnessed the harm they believe agrochemicals have done to ordinary people, I’m struck by how genuinely committed to organic farmers Maarji are. But I still wanted to talk to some farmers. With help of my translator Randika, I learned that Weerakoon Priyarathna, who had been growing organic guava, lemongrass, meringa and tamarind at his small holding for over 10 years, was very pleased to be organic. When asked if it works for him, he suddenly becomes animated, nodding emphatically as he explains its attraction.

farmer in Sri Lanka

 “He is getting happier growing organically, not buying chemicals and weedicides means more money and farming is simpler, leaving him more time with his family”

As we leave the small holding, I notice one of group, Gamunu, is being bowed to by Weerakoon’s wife. I’m urged not to see this as a display of subservience, but a demonstration of gratitude. The retired Chairman of Maarji Herbals, Gamunu spends his free time advising to farmers like Weerakoon and helping to identify who might benefit from direct infrastructural support. This I’m told is where Weerakoon ’s much appreciated new irrigation hoses came from!

Peacock Problems

Over the next few days I would meet other farmers like Alahakoon and Nimal, all growing a diverse range of organic crops from cinnamon and pepper, to nutmeg and coffee. Whether in lowlands and struggling with clumsy elephants, or in the cooler, higher forests, dealing with an infestation of peacocks (I could tell Nimal didn’t share my admiration for the bird), they all had their challenges. However, there were common themes. All valued the relationship they had with their customers, the diversity of crops they grew gave them security and none of them missed wasting money or valuable farming and family time on agrochemicals.

When it came to answer that big question about the power of relationships, some of my best insights came on the last day. Five more hours of amazing scenery and swerving around the innumerable dogs (sleeping in, rather than by the winding roads) and we arrived at Ahnisa Teas. One-time lecturer in both the UK and US, Professor Abeygunawarden now spends his days (200 a year of them rainy ones) in the high rainforest of Nilmini. Growing tea this high means his tea has more of the much sought-after antioxidants – polyphenolics. Having resulted in Sri Lankan green tea gaining a poor reputation, widespread use of herbicide MCPA is an issue for Abeygunawarden. He is clearly both highly motivated to encourage organic growing and angry about the affect MCPA use is having on ordinary farmers and his country’s reputation.

showing a map of tea growing areas

Abeygunawarden takes in interest in all of his 350 growers; and claims to have visited every one. He sets a self-imposed limit of 500 growers, he feels expansion would make personal connection unmanageable. Regards sticking to the rules, the training all growers receive is bolstered by the general respect and trust ETS say they have for him. Receiving certification in this community of growers is a celebration, with a ceremony to acknowledge the achievement.

“Besides, they know that if they use pesticide or herbicides, their whole village may lose the ability to supply me, so they don’t risk it”

There are other ‘peripheral effects’ that drive loyalty here too. Young people within his grower community seem drawn to his academic reputation and for a lucky few who show academic promise, sponsorship of their higher education is a possibility.

As we reach the new southern highway, I reflect on the change that I’ve seen since my last visit to this incredible country. Many conversations have revealed serious concerns about the impact of this progress, but also reveal real opportunity when people work together to build transparency, trust and share in some of the rewards. I’d like to think this won’t be my last trip to Sri Lanka, but if I must wait another 12 years before I return, I hope I return to a Sri Lanka with a national ambition for organic and perhaps fewer peacocks.