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How a heartbreaking story during the 2004 tsunami inspired Dilmah to help local businesses

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Dilmah is one of the most well known teas in the world. Stories about Tea spoke with CEO Dilmah Fernando, one of the twee sons of Dilmah-founder Merrill Fernando, about the Merrill J. Fernando Foundation. A monologue.
After the Tsunami, which hit on boxing day 2004, the Merrill J. Fernando Foundation was required to take care of a certain area. So we went, there was nothing, there was no frame of reference, there was no civilian administration, there was absolutely nothing so you had to do what you could.

We had a makeshift office, which was the back of my four-wheel drive, and a couple of us started talking to people, we found the priests and asked what we could do, who to help. We found some civilian administration but the offices we’re gone, their records were gone.

The first person to come along was a lady who must have been in her 60s who had an agonizing experience. When the first wave came she was caught up in it, she grabbed hold of two of her children, and as the wave went out she saw her husband who realized was dead. She also had two more children, there were four in total, who she later realized had gone into the ocean and probably weren’t going to survive because the waves were as high as a coconut tree, 20 to 30 feet, and the ocean was boiling, it was crazy.

She had this agonizing choice of which child to let go because she was also being dragged out to sea and she had to grab a coconut tree. I could not believe how agonizing this choice was for her, but then she hit her head on the tree and she missed it because it wasn’t perfectly aligned and she lost both children.

So she came along and was in this terrible situation, and at that point what we had determined in terms of the policy of the foundation was that we take a business-like approach to every situation. The philosophy of making business a matter of human service is to understand that business has an obligation to help with poverty alleviation, environment, etc. so based on that policy my response to her was to say ‘look, you’ve had a really hard time but we are going to see what you can do and how we can start up’.
So, I asked her a simple question: “What is is it that you used to cook for children and husband?” and she said ‘string hoppers’ which is a Srilankan delicacy. We then got the cooking equipment, the gloves, the hairnet etc. and told her basic preparation methods. It was a little bit crazy because it was in a damaged and open building so there was no roof.

But we said: “Ok tomorrow morning we have an order for you for 400 meals, we need to start at 5 because we have to provide food for all the workers who came from around the place.” It didn’t work initially because she came a couple of hours late so she couldn’t supply the food, but she came nevertheless, and she did about 20 different meals. The next day she came an hour late, the following day she came on time, and today she runs a cooperative with almost 40 women in similar circumstances.

It is an amazing success story but why I share this story with you is that for us as a Srilankan business, run by a Sri Lankan, particularly my father who was from a very ordinary Srilankan background, there is always an understanding that we have an obligation to our community, our environment, and that obligation is taken very seriously. The fact that I had to go and be present was a part of my fathers vision. Yes, of course we have to sell tea but no, we have a problem so get out there and get on with this.

So to see this product, tea, having this impact on this woman, and we now have a 2300 small business like this across Sri Lanka doing different things, but that is the most vivid and firm memory for me because seeing that lady coming along, she had round spectacles and she is everyone’s perfect idea of a grandmother, the tsunami had aged her.
But to see her today, and the cooperative that came out of it, is an inspiring example of whether a person is in terrible difficulty, whether they are disabled, whatever it is, there is always something you can bring out with dignity. So the philosophy of making business a matter of human service helped us do so.

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