Amba Opa Dupa means Amba Gossip in Sinhala. This is a story I made on a trip in Sri Lanka earlier this year. Amba Tea Estate, nestled near Lipton's seat and Ella rock, is run by Beverly Wainwright, an english businesswoman with philanthropic plans. Backed by the estate owner Simon and colleagues, all international development experts, the estate is designed to be a model of improving a local economy and exploiting natural resources sustainably. Not only that - the tea produced here is amongst the finest money can buy.
Beverley took over the running of Amba just over two years ago. Previously the tea was sold to a large buyer, who would transport it to a distant factory where it was processed and packaged for sale. The amount of money being paid meant that the pickers (always women, and a mix of Sinhala and Tamil) were amongst the worst paid in the local villages. Two years later they are among the best paid, meaning further education for their children, bringing them untold opportunities.
Beverley removed the ‘KP’, the man employed to watch over, direct and protect the pickers, a move that was a little controversial. She also stopped selling most of the leaves to the lorries and started training herself and the pickers to hand roll the tea on the estate.
The idea was to empower the pickers, to help make more money for themselves and to add to the quality of the whole process by asking the pickers to be rollers, dryers and mixers too. Results have been excellent.
Through experimentation, trail and error, and through training, Amba Estate have started producing some of the best tea in the world, and it is already being sold at places such as Fortnum & Masons, and it's being bought by royal families and celebrated chefs alike.
The estate is not yet making profit, and the ongoing investment from international development specialist and estate owner Simon and his partners has been crucial. They view a successful tea estate as a very solid method of socio-economic improvement in the area. This is also why Beverley, a self-confessed 'tea anorak' takes the highly unusual attitude of sharing her methods openly, much to the delight of other tea growers around the world looking to independently further themselves financially.
As is so frequently the case in the sub-continent, the history of the Sri Lankan tea industry is a colonial one. Introduced from India by English growers looking for the perfect land after failed coffee plantations, the wealth it brought suddenly encouraged a surge of new estates, one of the most famous being Lipton's. Sri Lanka, and its colonial masters, were made extremely rich - Sri Lanka was the number one exporter to the UK. Some years after independence, however, the Sri Lankan government nationalised all tea factories. There was no longer any financial incentive for the tea growers and processors - the quality of the tea dropped dramatically and the prices remained high. The UK simply found somewhere else to source from, and Sri Lanka never recovered the iconic status.
In its heyday the tea had a unique flavour, Uva. This was considered lost to the world until recently, where Amba managed to rediscover the taste. One tasting expert actually shed a tear when he first tasted it - having grown up in what was then Ceylon, he knew the taste well but had not experienced it for a very long time.
Beverley's love for the job shines through in her work ethic. Without her this story would not exist, without the pickers it would not exist and without Simon and his partners it would not exist. This is the rare meeting point of many positive entities.
Tea has been the source of much global conflict; it is the source of Sri Lankan wealth historically and potentially for the future. To see it used in such a positive fashion shows that not all is bad in Sri Lanka: Tamils and Sinhalese work side by side, the local area is receiving more money than ever before and most of all they are already producing some of the best tea in the world.