On 1 September we inaugurated the MJF Centre East, the most ambitious combined humanitarian and environmental project that we have ever undertaken.

Amongst the projects that the MJF Foundation, and its environmental equivalent – Dilmah Conservation – have implemented, this has very special resonance and that is rooted not in the cost of the facility – even though the investment of Rs. 1.3 billion by a family-owned tea business in a purely charitable initiative has its own resonance. It’s significance is linked rather with the philosophy that led to the establishment of the centre and its purpose.

Like the 11 other MJF Centres, 90 Schools and Child Development Centres established by the MJF Foundation, this is the fulfilment of a pledge made decades ago, to make Dilmah a business that is a matter of human service.

Honouring the promise that my father made to his customers is not what is remarkable about this initiative, but rather the fact that it is the outcome of the efforts of a Sri Lankan tea grower, taking tea grown and packed with love in Sri Lanka to the world, framed in the knowledge that for any industry to be genuinely sustainable, it requires the engagement of community and environment and must benefit both in its progress.

My father’s motivation for making our family business a matter of human service was incredibly simple; it is what he knew to be right, and sharing the profits from his then fledgling tea business with those less privileged was a moral obligation that represented the only way he knew he should act whether in business or any other sphere of activity.

He is an ordinary Sri Lankan and in his youth, daily faced the choice of buying breakfast of bun and banana at the local Sultana Bakery or using the money to pay for a train ride to school. He had no formal education beyond the Senior School Certificate he received from Maris Stella College and was armed therefore with the Christian values his parents had taught him.

Throughout his journey from the quiet village of Pallansena, being selected as one amongst the first Ceylonese to receive training in tea in London, through rising to Managing Director of A F Jones & Co., eventually starting his own business, his attitude was one of gratitude, and therefore also humility.

It was always clear that success was a blessing from God, and like any blessing should be passed on and shared. Hence that philosophy of making business a matter of human service, first expressed when he started his tea business with 18 employees, and which continues today to the benefit of thousands more.

Even as ASEAN leaders concluded the Regional Session of the World Economic Forum with strong commitment to embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the architect of the concept – Prof. Klaus Schwab acknowledges that many have not even experienced the third, some not even the 2nd Industrial Revolution.

In this reality, there is the startling truth that amidst the exponentially more awe inspiring technological advancement, many in the developing world have not even experienced glancing benefit from this progress. Without radical change in our collective effort at addressing poverty alleviation, climate change and inequality that is also unlikely to change for most of those on the periphery today.

This is where the inauguration of the MJF Centre East should have even greater resonance for business people who may subscribe more to the theory that businesses exist more to deliver ‘shareholder value’ and less to address poverty alleviation and environmental challenges.

The greatest threats to every individual, business and government today are inequality and climate change, which have a direct relationship with each other, one exacerbating the effects of the other and if unchecked, leading to collective disaster.

The notion of sharing the benefits of success with the less fortunate in the wider community did not have currency at the time my father first established Dilmah for it was the 1970s and business people had the excuse of an abhorrent element of the Friedman doctrine; Milton Friedman wrote that, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

Ethical business was clearly not as fashionable then as it is now, although unfortunately even today the word ‘fashion’ is uncomfortably appropriate for in many cases ethics are more about perception than about reality. Consumer demand for businesses to be socially responsible was initially met by a profusion of loudly-stated good intentions, posturing and insincerity.

At the time many assumed that we had an option, but what has become glaringly obvious today is the fact that the futures of the farmer in Embilipitiya, the palmyrah tapper in Mullaitivu and the businessman in Colombo are one and the same.

The debilitating and ultimately destructive outcome of inequality is conflict, the consequences of unchecked climate change, whether in the wet or dry zone, are economically, socially and politically catastrophic. To add to the universality of the situation, neither climate change nor inequality can be addressed without sincere and mutually respectful partnership amongst all concerned – farmer, tapper, businessman as well as bureaucrat, politician, academic etc.

The MJF Centre East will deliver formidable humanitarian benefits to thousands of economically and socially marginalised youth, women and men in the east of Sri Lanka, it will change the lives of differently-abled children and train youth in coding, cuisine, design, while providing entrepreneurship development, education and also delivering positive environmental interventions, most significantly in helping farmers adapt to their changing environment. Above all these, the Centre expresses acknowledgement that as Sri Lankans, as business people and as individuals, we have an irrevocable obligation to our community and our environment, and with that obligation we also have the resources and capability to assume control of our shared destiny, and strive to ensure that our future generations have the same quality of life and opportunities as we do.

(The writer is Trustee, MJF Charitable Foundation and CEO, Dilmah Tea. He is the younger son of Dilmah Tea Founder Merrill J. Fernando. Together with brother Malik, Dilhan has taken on the passionate commitment of his father, for tea, ethics in business and the concept of business as a matter of human service.)

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