Sri Lanka and New Zealand –
strong bonds of friendship

Aruna Abeygoonesekera, Sri Lanka’s Honorary Consul in New Zealand, chuckles when asked if he is a convert to New Zealand’s famed coffee culture.
Man standing in front of microphone at a podium

Aruna Abeygoonesekera: "The connection has always been there... but it has been progressively building."

“People often don’t realise Sri Lanka was a coffee country until 1869 when a coffee blight hit. Tea plants were brought from China and the rest is history, but very good coffee is still grown in Sri Lanka. We always bring coffee back when we visit.”

Fine tea is still Sri Lanka’s major export to New Zealand, and Mr Merrill J. Fernando, founder of the iconic Dilmah company, will be part of the large ministerial and business delegation accompanying Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, who arrives in New Zealand on Friday.

The visit follows Prime Minister John Key’s visit to Sri Lanka in February this year and Mr Abeygoonesekera says the large delegation signifies the warm, mutually respectful and growing relationship between the two countries.

“The connection has always been there, we are both democracies with strong Commonwealth and United Nations bond, but it has been progressively building. At present New Zealand exports to Sri Lanka are six times those from Sri Lanka to New Zealand, but we hope to even that up a bit. The major New Zealand export is dairy, with about 90 percent through Fonterra.”

Moves are underway to establish a formal understanding between the two countries’ rugby unions and educational and travel connections are also growing. At any one time there are about 12,000 Sri Lankans in New Zealand, as residents, tourists or students.

Equally, Massey University has a presence in Sri Lanka with a twinning partnership signed with the University of Peradeniya to provide support in veterinary education – and support is already underway for training people in the dairy industry.

The relationship between Sri Lanka and New Zealand’s dairy industry is long standing. New Zealand Milk Products Lanka, owned by Fonterra, supplies about 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s milk powder requirements and employs around 600 Sri Lankans.

“I grew up with the Anchor brand, it is very respected,” Mr Abeygoonesekera says. “We are no longer a developing country, we are a middle income country, but people have been consuming dairy for a long time, and the main source is milk powder. That trade is worth about $300 million to the New Zealand economy each year.”

Sri Lanka is working to further develop its own dairy sector – with New Zealand support . A 2013 Dairy Cooperation Arrangement between the New Zealand Government and Sri Lankan Government has helped formalise and support further public and private dairy sector cooperation between the two countries.

Fonterra Brands Lanka collects milk from thousands of small dairy producers for processing at its local site, with the project including farmer and service provider training and development, model farms and milk collection hubs.

Mr Abeygoonesekera says that, with a population of 21 million, there remains strong demand for Kiwi produce.

“Liquid milk is produced in Sri Lanka but mainly supplies rural areas, with most of the population using powdered milk. Fonterra’s dairy plant at Colombo is beautiful, it is like walking into a part of the Waikato.

“It is a good balance, good for the farmers and ensures Fonterra is seen as a good citizen, supporting a sustainable local industry.  

Group of young people walk down the street past an Anchor milk sign with flags

Mr Abeygoonesekera says that, with a population of 21 million, there remains strong demand for Kiwi produce.

Mr Abeygoonesekera also sees opportunities for outsourcing.

“The Sri Lankan economy is still largely agriculture based but literacy is high and we can provide significant manpower, in a number of sectors, including to supplement the IT, food and textiles sectors – manufacturing to New Zealand standards.”

Mr Abeygoonesekera, who has lived in New Zealand for 28 years and combines his Honorary Consul role with his full-time job with the Ministry for Social Development, says a lesser-known relationship between Sri Lanka and New Zealand is the shared bonds of comradery during war. Sri Lankan forces fought with the Allies in both World Wars, but Mr Abeygoonesekera says evidence has recently emerged to suggest that a Ceylonese battalion fought alongside ANZACs at Gallipoli.

“Our Prime Minister will be laying a wreath at New Zealand’s war memorial. There is a plaque commemorating the Indian troops who fought but Ceylon was an independent nation. It is another example of our countries’ long-standing bonds and it would be good for it to be recognised.”

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Hon Ranil Wickremesinghe will give a talk on 'Sri Lanka and its place in the world' at an event being held at Parliament on Monday. New Zealand MP Mr Kanwaljit Sing Bakshi with support from the Asia New Zealand Foundation will be hosting the event.