No Storm In The Cup Yet: Only Tea Leaders Talking Tech

Kolkata: Sample this. Tea major Goodricke Group Ltd reported a turnover of Rs 170 crore in 2001. The company spent less than 0.5 per cent of its turnover on technology for its 34 tea gardens spread across Assam , Darjeeling and Dooars.

Another tea major Eveready, which belongs to the Williamson Magor Ltd, spent about Rs 5 crore in the last four years on IT. Eveready reported sales of Rs 458 crore during 2000-01 from its tea business.

Together, the two companies reflect a trend that is pretty alarming for the tea industry. The industry has remained labour intensive although there’s a huge scope for automation in anything from information dissemination to managing employees.

With the total production at 854 million kg, most of the Indian tea gardens and factories haveone or two computers loaded with proprietary payroll and accounts module.

Except for few big players, none has enterprise-wide solution from plucking to sales to make the process efficient and productive.

Says Mr Sujoy Das, the chief executive officer of RDG Systems and Software Pvt Ltd, a company which is implementing its software package TeaPac Milleinium in the North Bengal tea gardens: ‘‘The downturn in the tea industry has affected the technology spending of the tea companies. We are finding it difficult to convince the industry people to spend money on technology.”

Efforts are, however, on to expedite the implementation of technology in the tea industry. The Tea Board, the autonomous supporting body for tea production and marketing, has conceptualised a ‘‘hub’’ whereby integrating several small tea gardens for proper and faster dissemination of information is on the cards.

According to Mr Harendranath Dwibedi, controller of licensing in the Tea Board, of a total of 1.16 lakh tea gardens in the country, only about 1,500 gardens belong to the big growers. ‘‘It’s only the big growers whose gardens have a dedicated information dissemination system, with a WAN and LAN combination connected to the head office,’’ says Mr Dwibedi.

Speaking of technology application, tea sales is a crucial area. Sellers can sell tea either directly to the buyers or through auctions. Although IT can be exploited to the hilt for sales, it is not so in reality. Out of the six registered auction places in the country, there’s only one online auction sale site.

Says Mr Sanjeev Sinha, vice-president of Tea Auction Ltd, the only online industry tea auction site: ‘‘There is an enormous scope to make the sale of tea more transparent, quick and buyer and seller-friendly. Direct electronic selling of tea will make things easy for both buyers and sellers to finish deals in a matter of minutes.’’

Leaving aside use of IT in buying and selling, bigger players are gradually realising the need to leverage technology for better performance and profitability. Take the case of Hindustan Lever Plantations. Here data collection starts right from the tea leaf plucking stage, wherein customised weighing machines are used to capture the weight of the leaf plucked by each plucker and stored against his code. The weighing machines are also used to capture attendance of workers engaged in non-plucking activities. By the end of the day, the data from the weighing machines are downloaded and stored in a PC at the garden office for fortnightly wage processing.

HLL (Doom Dooma) and the group company, Rossell, together have 14 tea gardens in Assam located in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts in Upper Assam . HLL’s total investment in the plantation operations is approximately Rs 400 crore. The gardens together occupy 6,310 hectares of planted tea.

Every fortnight, the data from the garden payroll system is downloaded to the payroll server for processing of the payroll for workers. The gardens and the factories (in the gardens) also maintain a census system linked to the payroll system.

Based on details in the census system, the central payroll system processes and generates the rations for all the workers. The census system also keeps track of each worker, his/her family details and other demographic details.

The gardens maintain inventory systems, which record issues and receipts, for different items. This system is also linked to the payroll/attendance system and the management information system (MIS) generated from this provides information on materials usage, mandays usage etc., which help the units plan their work. The data from all the customised peripheral systems operating at the individual gardens/factories are ultimately captured on a financial ERP system located in the main head office.

In the factories that are located within the gardens, customised weighing machines are used to weigh different grades of tea being produced and generate MIS reports on the grades produced daily. The tea despatch from the factories is handled by customised software to capture details like despatch quantity and grade of the tea. This enables the tracking of the despatched teas to their ultimate destinations.

‘‘At HLL most of the data communication is done through VSATs, terrestrial phone lines and floppies/CDs as most of the gardens and factories are far away from each other,’’ according to a company spokesperson. The plantations have an exclusive IT cell of six persons to help develop, coordinate and maintain all the systems operating at different locations. In addition, a large number of users are well trained to resolve and trouble-shoot simple problems, he says. Software firms, with experience in plantations and familiar with their practices and rules, have developed most of these softwares, he adds.

For Eveready, the entire system is online between the gardens and the head office. Says Mr S K Pal, vice-president of Williamson Magor Ltd: ‘‘Requisite hardware in terms of computers, servers and VSAT connectivity are all in place.’’ The software has been primarily designed in-house and enables us to keep a daily track of plucking, manufacture, despatches and warehousing. The online services also include information on sales and shipment on a daily basis, says Mr Pal.

Array Solutions Ltd, the technology development arm of Williamson Magor, is one of the software solution providers for the tea industry. Says Mr Shantanu Goswami, general manager-marketing: ‘‘We provide software as well as communication solutions to the Williamson Magor group. Over the years, we have implemented IT solutions in the tea division which has helped the company get information from payroll to inventories, online.’’

Williamson Magor has four servers connected to the main server in Kolkata through the VSAT service provided by HCL Comnet. The gardens in the far flung areas transfer information either through floppies or CDs to these four servers which are then sent to the head office for business decisions.

Says Mr Das of RDG Systems: ‘‘Industry leaders are certainly working towards enterprise-wide solutions, but the real challenge lies in engaging the small and medium players to automate their business processes.”

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