Brewing up change under COVID-19: Transforming how tea is bought and sold in Sri Lanka

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 — a weekly event that has been held in the national capital under rules and procedures largely 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 theater-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 just 6 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.

“It was quite a challenging project for all of us,” says Buddhika Gayan, Engineering Manager at CICRA Solutions. “We had only six days to complete the product and manage the full development lifecycle.” Because of restrictions on movement around Colombo, “all team members worked and contributed from home, which was made easy by Microsoft Teams.”

Putting it all together

“Azure SQL services were used for database hosting. Therefore, it was much easier to do the configurations while doing speedy development. It was a plus point that we could scale up the servers as per the performance requirements,” Gayan says.

“For the application server, we used Azure App Services. UAT and production environments are managed in different deployment slots. As there was a requirement to restrict the access, we used Azure CDN and the geo-filtering features. During the live operation, we monitored system performance using Application Insights. It was very useful to take necessary actions related to product scaling.

“Our 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.”

“In these challenging times, members from our partner network are building innovative solutions to support the economy and business community,” notes Hasitha Abeywardena, Country Manager, Microsoft Sri Lanka, and Maldives. “Tea is the second largest export earning of Sri Lanka exports. The eAuction platform that CICRA Solutions built during our ‘Combat COVID-19 Challenge for ISVs’ took them less than six days and is helping the Sri Lankan Tea Industry transition and adapt to a new normal in a post-pandemic world.”