An Enterprise and its Impact
December 11, 2022
Merrill J Fernando, the patriarch of Dilmah and of Ceylon tea, has firmly embedded human service as the cornerstone of his multi-faceted enterprise, which has its roots in Pure Ceylon Tea. In the context of the wide-ranging debate on enterprise responsibility for the greater good of society, it is fitting to reflect on the impact that his vision and personal philosophy of business has had, on the marginalized and the needy of society.
A suitable starting point would be a brief synopsis of the Merrill J Fernando Charitable Foundation (MJFCF), and the activities of its Moratuwa Centre. The latter is perhaps the most visible expression of the Dilmah spirit of giving, reinforced as it is by purpose-built physical infrastructure and highly trained personnel, providing a wide spectrum of welfare services to individuals, families and communities. Fernando’s principle of sharing his earnings, doing business as a matter of human service, actually had its informal and spontaneous beginnings more than 60 years ago, when, at the end of an year, he rewarded his workforce, then less than 20, with money to buy schoolbooks and other basic necessities for children.
The small expense this kindness involved then has since grown exponentially, with the launching in 2002 of the MJF Charitable Foundation, accounting for an outgoing of over rupees seven billion in the last decade alone, a considerable outflow by any standards. However, Its real value is not in quantum, but in the measurable impact of the wide range of transformational initiatives it has funded over the years. Its beneficial influence is now felt island-wide, reaching a wide spectrum of disadvantaged communities in the most distant parts of the country, especially children with congenital disabilities in low-income groups, whose families cannot afford paid rehabilitation and corrective therapy. Independently, rebuilding lives and livelihoods devastated by the 2004 tsunami became an enterprise on its own.
It also encompasses the plantation sector in the Central province, and fishing, farming, weaving and pottery making communities in the North, North-Central, Southern and Eastern provinces. Included are our indigenous groups such as the” Ahikuntuka” and the “Veddah” peoples. The fast disappearing traditional culture and life-styles of the latter communities have received special attention, and documented for dissemination to the general public. Similarly, many groups of endangered native fauna and flora have been featured in several scientific, but easily readable texts, some of them in all three national languages. Elephant conservation research, in collaboration with the Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home, was an invaluable contribution towards the resolution of the human-elephant conflict.
Eco-system regeneration and climate-change mitigation are other issues which have received the special attention of the Foundation. The One-Earth Climate Change Research Centre, established on Queensberry Estate, Kotmale, provides the resources and facilities for both local and international study groups, to explore related environmental aspects. Sustainability has been a major focus of the Foundation from the inception itself.
The Foundation has also augmented vital aspects of the government health sector in the Central and Northern provinces, with the provision of both infrastructure and equipment. Within our state correctional system, prison inmates have been rehabilitated , equipping them with the means of re-integrating in to mainstream society as useful citizens upon release. Annually, in a multitude of ways, the Foundation touches the lives of around 60,000 needy citizens of this country. Another aspect of the unique nature of the MJFCF is that it must be the only privately funded foundation of that nature in this country, with an international outreach.
The Moratuwa Centre, the nucleus and flagship of the MJFCF, is located on a 10-acre site of high commercial value, formerly a massive garment manufacturing complex, bordering the main Colombo- Galle road. For any entrepreneur, it would have been a perfectly logical site for further business expansion. Instead, Merrill Fernando, in the furtherance of his personal concept of business as a matter of human service, transformed it in to an oasis, a sanctuary, and an avenue for personal life-enrichment and self-expression, for the voiceless of our society.
The Centre houses a wide variety of facilities for the rehabilitation of children with development disorders, such as Down Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, vocational training in a wide-range of technical skills for youth, psycho-therapy and counseling for the emotionally distressed, as well as physical templates for environmental conservation and eco-system regeneration. Separate spaces are provided for social interaction amongst the lonely elderly. A special Women’s Development program has, through the years, benefited over two thousand individuals, many of them single mothers, enabling them to become skilled in specialized cuisine, sewing and other crafts, giving them the means with which to earn independent incomes.
A cooperative women’s group was provided with a sales outlet in Moratuwa, which enabled them, using Uber Eats as a platform, to dispatch food and meals to customers in distant suburbs of Colombo. Textiles and handcrafted goods, produced by women and youth at the Centre, are sold at upmarket centres in Colombo whilst, through its culinary training programme, supported by world renowned chefs and accredited international associations, children of plantation workers and of urban low income families have become cordon-bleu chefs.
The restrictions imposed on normal activities because of the Covid pandemic compelled the Centre staff to innovate and reinvent processes. Children deprived access to regular education due to closure of schools, were taught through an outreach program, which conducted English and Math classes in the open air under trees, in empty shops, community halls, and in temples and the backyards of houses. A mobile toy and book library met the needs of over 500 children in five different communities.
One of the most distinctive features of the Centre is its sustained interaction, and connectivity, with the external society. Most of those who receive relief at the Centre have families outside; parents, siblings and other kith and kin. Managing seriously disabled individuals, especially children with congenital physical and cognitive impairments, needs the loving engagement of family members who have to be specially trained, in order to understand the nature of such disabilities and the life-long limitations they impose on those afflicted, despite therapy and professional support. The MJFCF recognizes the crucial importance of training the carer along with the sufferer.
The Centre premises itself is a role model example of order, serenity and environmental conservation and eco-sensitivity, located in the middle of urban pollution. A densely planted urban arboretum comprising endemic forest species, reinforces the superiority of natural forest growth and the inestimable value of complex eco-systems, over that of commercial forestry with limited species. In a specially designed butterfly garden within the premises, over 60 species of butterflies have been identified. An organic vegetable cultivation model defines the virtues of clean and safe agriculture. All these take place within a stone’s throw of the busiest thoroughfare in the island and, possibly, the most densely populated suburb in the Western province.
The focus and philosophy of the MJFCF is not simple charity, which is the common concept of social responsibility in conventional aid models the world over, “but empowerment with dignity”. The MJFCF, by design and calculation, avoids the danger of creating dependence and, instead, enables disadvantaged individuals and communities to become self-sufficient. Whilst the services of the MJFCF are delivered free of cost to the beneficiary, wherever in the world it is provided, it does not provide hand-outs. Beneficiaries and recipients are motivated to nurture and expand inherent abilities and skills, and to translate those dimensions in to life-enriching initiatives, enabling them to become assets to their respective families and communities.
The services of the Moratuwa Centre, and in over a dozen similar establishments spread out across the island, are provided by trained personnel with special skills, demonstrating dedication well over and above normal job responsibility. Professional caring is a vocation, which has to be invested in equal proportions of both skill and passion. The success of the Foundation is proof that the personnel involved too, have been inspired by the Founder’s spirit of giving. The focus of the relatively silent service of the MJFCF is on outcome and sustainability, and not on cosmetic effect. In its totality it represents a unique, as well as an exemplary model of the conscience of a genuinely socially responsible enterprise.