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


  • Boil the kettle, fill the pot, and raise a
    celebratory cup. Sri Lanka’s renowned tea industry has just dodged a
    potentially devastating COVID-19 shutdown by swapping 19th-century tradition
    with 21st-century digital innovation.
  • A cloud-based auction system keeps buyers and
    sellers socially distanced, safeguards a 150-year-old industry, and protects
    the livelihoods of almost two million people
     

SINGAPORE – Media OutReach – 12 May 2020 – 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.”

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft)
is the leading platform and productivity company for the mobile-first,
cloud-first world, and its mission is to empower every person and every organization
on the planet to achieve more. 

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