RTZ Award for Long-Term Commitment
Bangladesh's war of independence left its tea industry in ruins. Many employees including management staff had been killed. Managers from West Pakistan left and the assured market for tea there was lost. Tea gardens had been bombed, shelled and mined.
When the industry began to pick itself up, helped by a world tea boom in l976-7, Duncan Brothers - responsible for a fifth of the tea grown in Bangladesh - decided to spend what it could on better housing, water supplies and health care for its 15,000 employees. It found a helper in Britain's Overseas Development Administration* which offered money to improve Bangladesh's tea industry.
Twenty years after independence, 70 per cent of Duncan's employees have water piped to them from deep tube wells. Estate hospitals have been improved and a pilot healthcare project has been set up on one estate, offering vaccines against common diseases and teaching families about health, cleanliness and sanitation. Health visitors monitor health with the help of a family record card.
When the ODA* offered low-interest loans to build better houses, Duncans did so. Their priority, however, has been to provide water and latrines. Government regulations require houses with brick walls but these are not popular with all residents in a hot climate, and Bangladesh continues to experiment with houses of different types.
On the business side, Duncans produce over 8 million kilograms of tea a year on ten estates. They have taken advantage of European Community loans to re-equip their tea factories with new equipment from India.
They run Bangladesh's largest tea warehouse, set up when the partition of India stopped exports through Calcutta. They also operate a plywood factory, making doors and table tops as well as tea chests.
They were the first to install computers at tea gardens, to help with control and ensure fast information for management. They have also started growing and tapping rubber on land where tea is hard to establish. They aim eventually to produce 1000 tonnes a year for Bangladesh's industries.
To provide income in poor years for tea prices, Duncans set up an insurance company when the government opened the insurance business to private firms in l985. They have also set up a leasing company, the second in Bangladesh, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and their own parent, Lawrie Group PLC of Wrotham, Kent. The company hires out equipment from computers to industrial machinery.
Duncans was set up by Walter Duncan, a Scotsman, in Clive Street, Calcutta, in l858, the year after the Indian Mutiny. He initially dealt in cotton goods but got involved in tea on behalf of a fellow Scot with an office in the same building who returned home for his health.
(* The ODA was replaced by the Department for International Development in 1997.)