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De Lanerolle’s staple-free tech invention: A hidden gem that Sri Lanka’s tea industry is yet to see

De Lanerolle’s staple-free tech invention: A hidden gem that Sri Lanka’s tea industry is yet to see

04 Dec 2023 | BY Imsha Iqbal

When enjoying Sri Lankan’s staple – tea – twice or thrice a day, have you ever wondered if the stapler pins in the tea bag can be hazardous for consumption when considering sustainability? But the visionary Sri Lankan Rohan De Lanerolle Sr. has already come up with a solution: stapler pin-less technology for tea bags. 

The Daily Morning Business sat with De Lanerolle Sr. for a fruitful discussion on his innovation. His sons, Abacus Tea (Private) Limited Director of Marketing Ishan De Lanerolle and Rohan De Lanerolle Jr. also joined in talking about how their father's innovation could revolutionise Sri Lanka’s tea industry.    

Following are excerpts from the interview: 

How do you prefer to introduce yourself and your positioning in the industry? 

I am Rohan De Lanerolle Sr., the Chairman of Abacus Tea (Private) Limited and I formed this company around 15 years ago. We have been mostly packing for other companies that export tea in terms of tea bags because I managed to develop a fleet of machines for those companies. 

With the experience gathered through the active years in the field, can you describe the level of contribution from you and the company to the industry? 

While it was going on, about five years ago, there was a tendency among tea buyers for stapleless bags. The demand was strong to the extent that companies with stapler pin tea bags were idling. 

So I was wondering what I would do with the machines in my factory, because I had machines with stapler pins at that time. I started looking at how we could convert these existing machines into stapleless ones. It took about three years of trial and error to manufacture a prototype machine that functions with similar efficiency.  

I have built 21 units for these machines for Unilever India and 10 for Tata. Sri Lanka’s George Steuarts Teas has commenced using these as well. 

Another international company has also inquired about 25 machines; this cannot be named since it is still in the process of discussion. 

What inspired you to create a stapleless tea bag machine?

It was mainly the demand that was created with the assumption that a ban would come into effect in Sri Lanka, since tea bags with stapler pins have been identified as a health hazard.

We have 25 machines. If such a ban comes into place, we have to throw away all the machines, thereby disrupting the continuation of the factory. There are over 100 of these (staple) machines in the industry, in the current context. But there are only 20 to 25 stapleless machines in the country. 

Why should a business utilise your innovation for production? What is the convincing factor?

A tea bag machine with staples costs over $ 500,000. On the other hand, this staple-free machine costs only around $ 70,000-100,000. When it comes to Sri Lanka’s tea companies, it saves them one-fifth of the cost compared to a brand new staple machine being imported. 

At a time the economy is starved for dollars – leading to the prevailing consequences of the economic crisis – it also saves the country’s foreign exchange at a colossal rate.   

How have you evaluated the demand in the local market for your innovation, especially from tea exporters?

There is a demand by some tea manufacturers, but most of them do not seem to be convinced to purchase a Sri Lankan innovation, while companies such as Tata have indicated its endorsement of our quality. They contacted us during the Covid-19 pandemic through a Zoom meeting, requesting two newly invented machines.   

Unlike in Sri Lanka, India endorses “Be Indian, buy Indian”.

Do you have any plans in the pipeline for your innovation to increase its speed or for cost reduction?

Our next target is to increase its speed. I am in the process of increasing the speed of this machine within the next year. 

When it comes to cost, the tea bags that are with stapler pins are, in comparison to the market rate, higher in price by twenty cents relative to stapleless ones.          

How much has been spent on its infrastructure thus far?

Rohan De Lanerolle Sr.: We spent a colossal amount, with trial and error. 

Ishan De Lanerolle: Thomas Alva Edison said: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” When developing this product, my father’s policy was also the same. He found ways that didn’t work, but they led to results.  

Within this innovative process, have you received any sort of State support or sponsorship in promoting your innovation?

Absolutely nothing, unfortunately, though we reached out to them. 

We reached out to several government departments, but nothing has happened. We have reached out to an ex-Prime Minister and an ex-President.  

How many of your machines have been upgraded from staple to staple-free?

A total of 44 machines have been converted from staple to staple-free. We take the staple unit and replace it with a needle unit.

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