Pandemic forces age-old Colombo Tea Auction into the future

Colombo Tea Auction
Photo courtesy Microsoft

Picking, sorting, processing, and grading tea leaves make up the fabric of life in Sri Lanka. And ensuring that people around the globe get their daily cups of chai, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, or Orange Pekoe is crucial to the local economy and jobs.

To maintain all the above, this multimillion-dollar industry relies on the Colombo Tea Auction. This weekly event has been held in the national capital under rules and procedures mostly unchanged since they were first laid down in the 1880s and 1890s.

Until now, putting lots of fine Ceylon tea under the hammer and up for export was a noisy and very physical affair. Bidding echoed in rapid-fire across the three theatre-like auction rooms that were often packed with hundreds of brokers and officials, many of them jotting down numbers of paper sheets.

This ritual ended in mid-March, not because it was regarded as old-fashioned or inefficient, but as a matter of health and safety.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our country, it was impossible for our traditional tea auction to follow social distancing and other health guidelines,” recalls Jayantha Edirisinghe, Sri Lanka’s Tea Commissioner.

The auction schedule was suspended for two weeks. With a potentially devastating economic shock looming, the Sri Lanka Tea Board and its Tea Traders Association turned to a local Microsoft partner, CICRA Solutions.

The company had previously scored successes for the industry by automating its complex tea brokering practices and by modernizing the Tea Board’s back-office system. Now, with the pandemic worsening, the time had come for a digital transformation of the whole auction process.

Within six days, CICRA Solutions team was able to digitally transform the auction process by creating an e-auction platform to enable business continuity.

With some guidance from Microsoft’s experts, CICRA Solutions moved ahead with a two-step approach. Eventually, it would develop an advanced e-auction platform for long-term use. But in a crucial first stage, it quickly developed a minimum viable product (MVP) solution that re-established business continuity.

Buying and selling are now conducted safely and securely via Microsoft Azure, with traders bidding virtually from their homes or offices. The first e-auction went off well with high demand.

Putting it all together

The long-term objective is to further develop this solution into a world-class tea and commodity auction solution with AI and analytics and then market that globally.

Stakeholders on all sides of the tea industry have praised CICRA Solutions for deploying its impactful solution so quickly.

Anil Cooke, who heads a task force at the Ceylon Tea Trade Association, says the e-auction solution “has transformed the lives of almost two million people in the Sri Lanka tea industry by sheltering them from the consequences of a COVID-19 shutdown.”

“The e-auction, with all its competitiveness and nuances, was launched in less than a week through herculean effort, dedication, strong collaboration between stakeholders, and very smart and tireless work by CICRA,” he says.

Eashan Perera, who is Deputy General Manager at Talawakelle Tea Estates PLC, described the switch as “an absolute blessing” that “has injected much-needed cash flows into the plantation sector at a time when the pandemic has crippled many (other) industries.”

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