The strategic digital investments shaping the future of productivity at Hayleys Plantations

By Hayleys Plantations Managing Director Dr. Roshan Rajadurai

The perennial challenge that any plantation economy faces is a simple one: how do we improve productivity while keeping our costs under control. Since our plantation industry was first established over 150 years ago, it has seen many transformations – from the end of colonial rule through nationalization and into the present day. In that time, the challenges that have been faced have often been cyclical in nature and that is because in agriculture, there are no quick fixes to most problems.

Indeed, it is often the case that when the Sri Lankan plantation sector is brought up in public discussions, it is often purely in terms of the challenges which our industry faces, with little or not enough attention being focused on actual problem solving. Particularly at a time when emergent technologies are carving out entirely new fields like precision agriculture, this feels like a missed opportunity.

Precision agriculture is defined by the advent of new technologies, that collect and leverage huge amounts of data; generating massive amounts of revenue for relatively nothing. Precision agriculture makes a farmer’s field operations altogether more efficient, by driving insights and productivity.

Globally, agriculture and plantation economies are all – almost without exception – facing the same set of challenges, namely maintaining and enhancing productivity in the face of lower availability of land. Some of the most interesting developments in agriculture are now taking place in this field and the solutions that have been emerging has focused on minimizing crop wastage and getting the maximum out of current resources.

New innovations in big data analytics, as well as simulation, visualization and stronger technical and scientific knowledge, are amplifying opportunities to grow their business not only in terms of revenue and sales, but also in terms of organizational health and efficiency.

Precision solutions can only come from precise data   

Without luck, it is impossible to arrive at a solution when you are working with imperfect information. This is part of the underlying rationale that prompted Hayleys Plantations to invest over Rs. 70 million towards the development of our real-time weighing system.

The wider principle at play is that the capture and integration of key data, allows for Management to take informed decisions based on accurate information as to conditions on each estate, and in this manner, help to enhance yields and ensure that each point in our production process is monitored.

At this point in our journey, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what an emphasis on strategic technological interventions is capable of. However, if we were to distill the lessons we have learned having developed, implemented, and refined our Real Time Weighing system for our tea sector into a single axiom, it would be this: ‘if you can measure it, you can improve it’.

For an industry like tea that is steeped in over 150 years of history, this has been a task that is easier said than done.

Solving grassroots problems

Since the tea industry was first established, everywhere in the world, the most common practice was for tea harvesters to finish a session of work, and then bring their harvest to a collection point where it would be manually weighed using rudimentary analogue scales, following which entries were made by estate staff in the field.

This is of course still the case in many ways to this day – and not just in Sri Lanka, but all over the world. As technology progressed, the very real problem of gathering data on daily harvests and relaying that information from the hills of Nuwara Eliya and plains of Galle down to Headquarters in Colombo, and through to the rest of the value chain was eased by the introduction of computers and the internet.

Nevertheless, these field lists would have to be manually entered into a computer terminal and only then transmitted. When scaled across the entirety of our 60 award winning estates managed under Talawakele Tea Estates PLC, Kelani Valley Plantations PLC and Horana Plantations PLC – this proved to be a still daunting task, and would naturally result in inevitable delays in the daily analysis of performance across each estate, and each worker.

Moreover, there was another serious problem created by this system. It eroded trust between field supervisors and tea harvesters when it came to the weighing, and therefore the valuation of their daily work. While the management had enforced strict policies against tampering with daily tallies, the problem persisted.  

This is where our decision to apply new thinking to old problems eventually led to the development of what promises to be a solution that is cost effective and scalable for the entire Sri Lankan plantation sector, and which may hold the key to improved productivity and improved labour relations, and which Hayleys Plantations is proud to have pioneered.

A solution that was only simple on the surface

Today, every tea harvester working for Hayleys Plantations is provided with a personalized NFC-enabled ID card; a pioneering first in the Sri Lankan industry. Each of these cards is utilized to store the information on individual employees’ daily tea harvest, the results of which are weighed on digital scales that are linked directly to a common cloud-based real-time online platform developed internally at Hayleys Plantations and accessible by management through specially designed digital tablets distributed among estate and senior corporate management.

By providing employees and management alike with accurate, reliable data on daily performance that is updated in real-time, we have created a tamper-proof system for measuring the output of our employees. This enables them to trust that they are being compensated fairly according to the effort they put in, and generally the response has been extremely positive.

Because employees at every level are rewarded for strong performances, we are able to incentivize our best workers and reward them for their efforts, leading to a highly motivated, and driven workforce. The success of these initiatives is amply demonstrated by the high yields, and overall performance of our plantations sector that place Hayleys Plantations at forefront of our domestic industry, and a recognized regional leader as well. 

These efforts were further emphasized by the performance of Hayleys tea harvesters who won the 1st, 2nd and 3rd places at the first ever Sri Lanka Tea Board ‘Best Tea Harvester’ all-island competition held to celebrate 150 years of Ceylon Tea, including district level winners; an initiative which Hayleys Plantations is now continuing for its own employees. All of this is part of a productivity-focused culture that we are working to organically embed into every facet of our operations, from the field to the factory, and the board-room.

Information is the currency on which this system is powered. Through the integration of digitized systems from the field level of operations upwards, we have not only been able to gain visibility into individual employee performance, but also share that information within the organization and use it as the basis on which to encourage each of our employees to work to their full potential, and be rewarded accordingly.

This enables Hayleys Plantations to maintain some of the lowest employee attrition and absenteeism rates while driving some of the highest output per employee in the industry.

Setting a global example

In the often cutting analysis which is levelled at the Sri Lankan RPC sector, it is often forgotten that many of the same problems which we face are also encountered in other tea producing nations as well. Hence the solutions that we develop today have immense potential to be scalable, not just across the domestic industry, but globally as well.

We believe that Sri Lankan RPCs despite all the challenges they face today, can still overcome the systemic flaws in our operations through the same kind of focused problem solving that brought about the development of our Real Time Weighing System. In this manner we hope to not only continue to make the world’s finest tea, but also become a testing bed for innovation and radical solutions to age old problems.

Over the recent past, this spirit of dynamism has resulted in Hayleys Plantations gaining greater local and international exposure for its pioneering efforts as evidenced by the continuous flow of accolades to our company in recognition of finely balanced approach to Human Resource Management. These have included the Great HR Practices Award from the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM) at the National HR Conference in 2018 and the Gold Award for Excellence in HR Management in 2016, as well as being declared winners of the South Asian Business Excellence Awards for Best HR Practices for organizational development in 2017. Hayleys Plantations was also adjudged winners of the Global HRM Awards 2017 and in 2018 as the Best HR Organization to work for and winners of the Asia Pacific HRM Awards for the past two years running. We believe these are examples that must be amplified and emulated moving forward.