Is plantations industry a misguided missile? | Sunday Observer

Is plantations industry a misguided missile?

10 January, 2021

As the year 2021 reached us, the global pandemic has opened our eyes to the viable alternatives which some consider as a blessing in disguise, especially, at a time industries are harping on low productivity and high costs. However, this opportunity could be the last chance for many industries in Sri Lanka unless we are ready to align our thinking to be globally competitive if value-adding and exports are to be meaningful.

The emerging needs such as digital transformation for a sustainable strategic approach in handling the ‘growth’ aspect of any business is becoming clearer. Concepts such as ‘Reverse Learning’ and ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ are becoming increasingly useful to organisations to achieve the goal. Any industry must be humble enough to learn the relevant skills from millennials despite their young age and get them included in the decision-making process for their survival and growth. The ground rules are changing rapidly and the age to enter the board is no longer a barrier.

Misguided missiles

This is not about an animated cartoon of the ‘Woody Woodpecker’ series. Misguided missiles were not inherently faulty, they were just being guided in the wrong direction. Yet, they are missiles and could be deadlier than R-36M because the reference here is towards the human resources and the economy of the country in general. The plantations industry was not inherently faulty, but we believe the industry is misguided and continue in the downward spiralling to date. The cause we see is that the majority are not addressing the growth through a calculated approach. We salute those doing extremely well in this direction, but they are in the category of a ‘vital few’ while the ‘trivial many’ do not understand them. There is a lot to learn from the ‘vital few’ but the ‘trivial many’ do not have the competencies in strategic management to comprehend.

Sustainable growth is crucial to the long-term survival of a business. Continuous growth records make it easier to acquire assets, attract new talent and fund investments. It also drives business performance and profit. Most in the plantations industry have failed to address almost all the factors mentioned above.

Doing the same things that James Taylor or Henry Wickham did repeatedly expecting better results, is insanity. Job analysis, re-design and costing coupled with a flat structure are still to happen even after 27 years of privatisation, which took place in 1993. The cost is only an outcome. The problems if not managed internally would eventually end up in the hands of politicians.

Apart from these facts, are four areas of high importance in turning around plantations, such as land-based investments including the forest like cultivation (and underground assets), scientifically managed human resources, holistically managed lands, and transparent real-time information system.

Leadership and culture

Even if all the four areas are technically well managed, the two most important aspects are the leadership of the organisation and the positive culture that cannot be achieved without enabling employee engagement.

Although our soil cannot be compared with virgin soils, not initiating action to enrich the soils to maintain near virgin soil status is an absolute crime, especially, when comparing it with the outcomes of the global climate change already in place. The negative impact of climate change has become an insult to injury to the crops cultivated on degraded soils.

What we measure is what we manage. Developing and managing soil standards for specific crops remains an urgent action required in this industry. Developing soil standards should not be an academic exercise like many other undertakings.

The soil standards must be developed to suit the conducive growth of the crop. The soil moisture levels, organic ‘C’ levels, required levels of soil microorganisms, micro nutrient, and macro nutrient levels, required soil temperature levels and recommendations of practical methods to improve soils should be inclusive in the proposed soil standards. Simply put a strategic intervention aiming at enriching soils. The need to enrich biodiversity is another significant aspect that cannot be overlooked.

Raising the bar and working to achieve the full potential of the crops cultivated is another intervention required. The rubber tree can give 5-8 Kgs of dry rubber per year. A well-managed coconut tree has the potential to give 130 nuts per palm per year and a well-managed tea bush at its productive phase can give about 400 grams of made tea per annum. The responsible organisations must visit the achievers and make their success stories available to the public which will be a definite motivation for others to do better. That is creating an enabling environment for the industry to grow.

Passing the ball

In the absence of such an initiative by the Ministry and the Treasury, one could conclude that these two organisations responsible for the industry either do not have the competence to deliver expectations of the public or are not interested in delivering results. At times we wonder if they are simply passing the ball for their survival. The politicians who lead the Ministries must be trained in sustainable strategic thinking and acting competence and their performances must be monitored so that the axes are regularly sharpened to be the emerging leaders of the country, competent and visionary.

The best example was demonstrated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Cabinet of Ministers in attempting to eliminate the global pandemic at the early stages itself through the formation of the Covid-19 committee as they saw the need for the services of a competent strategist and brought Dr Udaya Indrarathne who shared strategic thinking with the members of the committee. He aligned the multidimensional resources towards a single goal with the help of many patriotic leaders in the team.

This is a fitting example for the plantations industry as well. The Ministry needs a strategic goal. The officials need competence in strategy execution. The objective is to achieve the goal within a reasonable timeframe using available and acquired strategic resources. Connecting the dots, it is not difficult to understand why the industry is behaving like a misguided missile when there are infinite opportunities unexploited to become the best managed Sustainable Forestry Enterprises of the world. Let the dawn of 2021 be the turning point of the plantations industry and the political system of the country to spearhead to the goal of achieving a per capita income of 12,500 USD before 2030. This is a single pill for all ills if executed strategically. Nevertheless, the potential threat of a misguided missile should not be underestimated as history is a good teacher.

Lalini De Silva is a former Senior Planter, Agricultural Advisor and Consultant