A Journey to Remember – Shameer Rasooldeen

“When I used to work 16 hours a day at work, many came up to me and said, I won’t be a Director, there will be no point in putting much effort. I used to tell them, I will not settle down for anything less. While everyone was busy aiming at the stars and ending at a tree top, I was focused on touching the stars and knowing what success tastes like. I became the youngest News Director at 26 and became the youngest CEO at 31. I won two international awards and filed over 50 stories for CNN and Channel News Asia and today, I’m an Alumni of St. Cross College, University of Oxford. A boy who couldn’t put down a sentence in English made the impossible happen, and I owe it to one man. That’s my Chairman, Mr. R. Rajamahendran,” divulged Shameer Rasooldeen, a Journalist turned Tea Professional.

Shameer, who began his career journey as a News Reporter, is now the Chief Executive Officer of A.F. Jones Exporters Ceylon (Pvt) Limited, which is a subsidiary of the Capital Maharaja Group. He is also the host of ‘Face the Nation’, a weekly current affairs show that covers issues of social and political relevance in Sri Lanka. Prior to this, Shameer was a journalist with News1st for 13 years, and became the youngest Director of English News at the reputed Media organization. He was adjudged Sri Lanka’s Outstanding Young Personality of the year in 2014, and was a Asia21 Young Leader in 2016. He is a CNN Fellow (2007) and was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold Fellowship in 2012. Shameer had won the Best Feature Report of the year award at the CNN World Report Awards in 2008 and won the Silver Medal at the United Nations Correspondents Awards in 2013 for his reporting. He is a qualified HR professional and holds a MBA (UK). He is also a CRISP fellow (2019) and followed the programme at St. Cross college, University of Oxford.

As the youngest Director of English News, Shameer introduced ‘News 1st UReport’ when he was challenged to take the brand to rural areas. This was a platform for every Sri Lankan to report news at the ease of their mobile phones. He continued, “We saw a huge potential in this and we developed it. Most of the UReporters are provincial correspondents today. There is a growing network of over 50,000 UReporters.”

“If you ask me what I miss being at News 1st, it probably is UReport. I was quite passionate, and to hear the stories of people made me realize that everyone has a story to tell. There is no good story or great story, every story is unique and extraordinary. V Awards is also something I’m proud of. It was the first ever volunteer awards in Sri Lanka to honour and salute the selfless contributions made by volunteers to the society.”

“Mr. Jayantha Monnekulame my mentor in the tea business once said in 2016, ‘You don’t have to know your tea to sell tea, you have to have the passion,’ when I thought that a move from the Media industry to the Tea industry was a tough challenge,” Shameer recalled.

Under Shameer’s leadership and guidance, today, A.F. Jones has become one of the fastest growing companies of the Maharaja Group, and he praised his young and energetic team for its success.

In the recent past, the Tea industry had to face countless challenges such as the ban on glyphosate and the worker wage issue. Voicing his opinion on the ban on glyphosate, the industry professional stated that the industry and the livelihoods of people were largely affected due to the then government’s illogical thinking.

“From an exporter’s point of view, we lost a good 3 Million kilograms to Japan. We exported approximately 10 Million kilograms of tea before the ban, and today it has reduced to 7 Million kilograms. People lost their livelihoods, factories were closed and hundreds of thousands of tea acres were affected. Our relations with Japan were hampered. Why? Because one fine day, someone thought that the usage of weedicide was harmful. I’m glad that the Tea Board and the Ceylon Tea Traders Association and Tea Exporters Association stepped up. If not, there was a threat of Sri Lanka losing another market and the graveyard would have had the name of Japan and Taiwan inked on the coffin.

“It has now been proven that glyphosate does not pose any health hazards. This was communicated by the then Minister of Plantation Industries as well. Glyphosate is a cost effective way to combat weedicides. It will take years to win back the confidence of the Japanese, as Japan is a traditional market for Ceylon Tea. The MCPA levels have to be maintained and that is the only way we can fight back and win back the market.”

Furthermore, enunciating his views on the worker wage issue, he said, “There has been a talk of a wage increase. I’m for it, but many factors need to be taken into account. Haphazard decisions shouldn’t be taken just to please the political authority or even the people. If the production costs increase, the tea prices will also automatically increase, resulting in the marked price of Ceylon tea to increase globally, making us less competitive. Hence, the decision has to be made with the head and not the heart. There are always the ripple effects that need to be considered. More thought has to be put into this.”

Speaking of the threats faced by the tea industry, Shameer stated four major threats and challenges. He proclaimed that the main obstacle is the competition, as the Indian, Kenyan, Vietnamese and Indonesian tea are much cheaper than Ceylon tea.

INCREASED COMPETITIVENESS

“Sri Lanka has lost markets like Pakistan and Egypt to Kenya. We almost lost the Iranian market owing to Indian tea. Everyone has to step up, even the government. There is resistance from many to blend other origin teas with Ceylon tea in Sri Lanka. If there are controlled mechanisms, why not? The issue is that some in the industry will find a loophole and it will further tarnish the image of good quality Sri Lankan tea. I recollect, when I joined the industry in 2016, I didn’t see why we couldn’t have an online tea auction system which was debated for years, I have personally debated and argued with industry veterans on my show and even at public forums. We delayed until the COVID-19 struck to move towards such an online digitized platform. Today, the platform is successful. If we start thinking small, we will continue to be small. Sri Lanka is a resilient nation, the Tea industry could boast a 150-year-old history, and if we are to survive another 150 years, we have to start thinking differently. There needs to be a complete shift in the way we think. There are too many industry veterans who do not wish to change, due to personal agendas. It’s a pitty!”

LACK OF INTERNATIONAL EXPOSURRE

“Not many countries have heard of Ceylon tea and in this regard, the Tea Board has a major role to play as the competent authority in Sri Lanka. There is a substantial amount of money allocated by exporters to fund the tea promotions across the world. However, little is being done. We have to establish our footprint as a premium tea supplier. The character of Sri Lankan tea cannot be matched. We have to capitalize on that.”

CHANGE IN LIFESTYLE

“People are moving away from tea to coffee, as coffee is now a lifestyle product. The fund of the Tea Board which is funded by the exporter should be used to actively promote tea as a lifestyle product.”

DEPLETION OF TEA PLUCKERS

“Most tea pluckers have moved to urban areas to find jobs. Hence, there is only a dearth of people who pluck tea now. The government has to bring in the stakeholder model promptly to address this issue.”

Sharing the organization’s future prospects, the CEO stated, “We have plans to develop a herbal range for the health conscious and also to gradually move towards instant tea to serve our clients in the Middle East. We have built some good brands across certain markets, in particular, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Libya and also the Balkans. We will continue aggressively, launching campaigns and moving to build new SKUs in these markets. Also, we are looking at Artificial Intelligence to forecast market trends and buying patterns. We just don’t see a storm in a teacup; we see limitless opportunities with a dynamic young team. I’m positive, sky’s the limit for Jones!”

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