Sri Lanka’s award winning hotelier talks sustainable business

Merrill Fernando 3

In April Merrill J Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea and Resplendent Ceylon Hotels became the first Sri Lankan Oslo Business for Peace Honouree by the 2015 Award Committee of Nobel Laureates in Peace and Economics.

The award recognises business owners who, through their own actions and commitments, promote socially responsible and ethical business practices in an outstanding way. Merill launched Dilmah Tea in 1988 as the first Sri Lankan company to grow, pick and pack at source - branded under a local Sri Lankan company for distribution to tea drinkers overseas. A unique philosophy was at the heart of the brand to make “business a matter of human service”; a pledge which has remained with Merrill throughout and been fulfilled through the philanthropic work of MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation. A minimum 10% of pre-tax profits from all Dilmah Tea sales and 10% of profits from Resplendent Ceylon are diverted towards humanitarian and environmental interventions, directly impacting thousands across Sri  Lanka.

Green Hotelier recently spoke with Merrill to find out why sustainable business is important in Sri Lanka and what's being done about it:

What are the key sustainability issues in Sri Lanka at the moment?

Sri Lanka is emerging from a very difficult period in its history which was marked by nearly four decades of conflict, which ended in 2009.  The social, environmental and multitude of other priorities that were neglected in that period are being addressed with infrastructure and economic development imposing a strain on the phenomenal biodiversity that Sri Lanka enjoys.  Our business is unique in that it is established and operated on the principle that success in business is a blessing that must be shared with the community.  The philosophy of making business a matter of human service therefore requires that all our operations are sustainable with our MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation extending the benefit to the wider community and environment.

Sustainability issues in Sri Lanka include threats to the biodiversity of our island from the infrastructure development that we need badly.  Equally it includes unstructured, unsustainable and poorly planned activity in construction, tourism and other industries.  As checks and balances are fine-tuned with greater understanding of the obligation to protect our environment for future generations, sustainability issues affect every sector of the national economy.  The progress that is being achieved is steady and increasing.  A recent development is agreement amongst several major banks to integrate sustainability factors in criteria for lending.  The Sri Lanka Business and Biodiversity Platform is similarly working towards integrating sustainability criteria into construction, plantation, leisure and other sectors with the view of translating the good intentions that have been expressed at policy level, into tangible action.

Which have a particular impact on/ are impacted by the hospitality industry?

Given Sri Lanka’s special appeal to visitors for its natural heritage the hospitality industry has most to gain from sustainable interaction with our natural environment.  The priorities are the integration of biodiversity consideration in national tourism policies, especially in connection with planning, construction and ecosystem services.  This includes building awareness on the importance of biodiversity, its strong role in the appeal of Sri Lanka as a destination for tourists and the necessity therefore to be sustainable in our management.

How can hoteliers help?

Hoteliers can help by understanding the mutuality that exists between the environment and tourism industry in Sri Lanka.  They can demonstrate leadership by making a genuine commitment to sustainability in their operations from designing locations by avoiding habitat destruction and maintaining the quality of the natural environment during construction of their properties and integrating respect for the environment into its operations. Strategies integrated into the development of Cape Weligama include LEED Gold certification disciplines, effective water and effluent treatment, recycling water, designing for energy efficiency and employing renewable energy via solar whilst also building the guest experience around the natural environment and retaining personnel who are able to encourage guests to build awareness of the need for sustainability.   Other initiatives include responsible sourcing of produce, engaging with the local community – in our case fishermen – to encourage sustainable fishing and show them the benefits of avoiding destructive fishing.

Tea plucker in Golec, Sri Lanka

Tea plucker in Golec, Sri Lanka

What have you found to be the most effective way for the hotel industry/ hospitality sector to offer support to economic and social needs in Sri Lanka?

The hospitality sector in Sri Lanka is growing at an unprecedented rate.  It is very well placed therefore to support economic and social aspects in Sri Lanka by facilitating the widest possible participation amongst Sri Lankans in the sector.  Sri Lanka has traditionally exported labour to parts of Asia and the Middle East whilst the growth of tourism in Sri Lanka presents a great opportunity to address social issues caused by the export of unskilled labour and give Sri Lankans the option of securing employment closer to home with the associated benefit to family life.  Training is an essential pre-requisite for this to happen and the hospitality sector needs to consider the urgency of developing the necessary front office, hospitality and culinary training facilities to allow people who are currently employed in unskilled roles overseas to benefit from the development of the hospitality industry.  Importantly the growth of the sector needs to include the communities in which the hotels operate so that the sector does not develop in isolation and shares the success with the surrounding community and environment.

Talk to us about some of the initiatives you support?

Through the MJF Charitable Foundation we have supported 200 scholarships for members of the tea picking families (99 of which are at university), have helped with housing improvements for workers including providing additional water supply, implemented a health care infrastructure and created a breast cancer awareness programme. Other initiatives include the Small Entrepreneur Programme (SEP) which provides deserving individuals with the necessary equipment to fund and launch a vocational-based business and improve existing businesses. The Prison Reform Programme forms part of the SEP and was launched in 2007 to help integrate former criminals back into society.  The Local Heroes Programme also evolved from SEP and mirrors the aim but on a larger scale, with the hope to empower impoverished communities.  We also sponsor a programme to support differently-able people in a bid to counter existing discrimination by implementing wide-ranging programmes, providing better care for these individuals.  The Empowerment of Women Programme helps women from underprivileged, marginalised communities and those with disabled children to embark on a livelihood on their own through education on individual and community development. The Empowering the North of Sri Lanka programme helps an area which has suffered badly socially and economically due to the civil war, re-build its infrastructure following the war. Alongside social initiatives, we work towards environmental sustainability through the Dilmah Conservation – we aim to foster respect for the environment and ensure its protection by encouraging harmonious co-existence between humankind and nature.

For more info on the philanthropic work of Merrill’s Foundation visit or

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