Pandemic Storm in a Teacup

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Tim UR

In mid-March, Ceylon tea became a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sri Lanka’s multimillion-dollar tea industry, which includes Chai, Earl Grey, English Breakfast and Orange Pekoe, depended on the weekly Colombo Tea Auction

Here tea is bartered, traded and exchanged under rules that existed since the 1880s. COVID-19 silenced the boisterous affair because of the country’s health and safety measures.  

"When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our country, it was impossible for our traditional tea auction to follow social distancing and other health guidelines," said Jayantha Edirisinghe, Sri Lanka's Tea Commissioner in a press release.

The auction schedule was suspended for two weeks. Fearing the economic shock, the Sri Lanka Tea Board and its Tea Traders Association turned to a local Microsoft partner, CICRA Solutions

CICRA Solutions is not new to the brewing party. It automated complex tea brokering practices by modernizing the Tea Board's back-office system. Now, the company needed to digitally transform the entire auction process.

Within six days, the entire auction process went online with a minimum viable product (MVP). 

Anil Cooke, who heads a task force at the Ceylon Tea Trade Association, says the e-auction solution "has transformed the lives of almost two million people in the Sri Lanka tea industry by sheltering them from the consequences of a COVID-19 shutdown."

Eashan Perera, who is deputy general manager at Talawakelle Tea Estates PLC, notes that it "has injected much-needed cash flows into the plantation sector at a time when the pandemic has crippled many (other) industries."

It was never going to be an easy project. But the movement restrictions made it worse. 

"We had only six days to complete the product and manage the full development lifecycle,” says Buddhika Gayan, engineering manager at CICRA Solutions. He noted that the entire project was managed remotely using Microsoft Teams. 

The new e-auction platform uses Azure SQL services for database hosting. Gayan notes that the ability to scale up the servers based on performance needs “was a plus point.”  

The application server runs on Azure App Services. User acceptance tests and production environments were managed in different deployment slots. Azure Content Delivery Network and the geo-filtering features helped to restrict access. Application Insights monitored the live operations and helped the team to further optimize. 

“Tea is the second largest export earning of Sri Lanka exports. The e-auction platform that CICRA Solutions built during our 'Combat COVID-19 Challenge for ISVs' took them less than six days and is helping the Sri Lankan Tea Industry transition and adapt to a new normal in a post-pandemic world,” says Hasitha Abeywardena, country manager for Microsoft Sri Lanka, and Maldives.

Next, the company is helping the Tea Board to improve the e-auction platform for long-term use. 

“Our long-term objective is to further develop this solution into a world-class tea and commodity auction solution with AI and analytics and then market that globally,” says Gayan. 

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Tim UR