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A postcard from a student: A lesson for our industry

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 15 August 2013 00:00


A simple input can trigger a chain of thought. It is also said that at times only a thought matters to change yourself and perhaps the world too. Even though this is not a groundbreaking thought that I had, a postcard from Australia from a former student engaged with reading for a doctorate did trigger a chain of thought. The postcard depicted the world’s largest ginger factory. In fact searching more you find that the factory is almost a place of entertainment and the local area is fully engaged with activities. To me the question that sprang to mind was, can I walk into a factory in Sri Lanka, observe what is going on with friendly guides, read or view its history, buy souvenirs and then post a card to a distant friend acting almost as a tourism promoter? The answer to my simple question was, ‘no, you cannot’. There are a few, in fact very few, places that you may be able to do that in the country. When you consider whether this is only an Australian phenomenon, you realise that this is quite common across other developed economies and all factories are well-advised to have similar strategies. Weak mindset It is no secret that the Sri Lankan mindset on manufacturing is quite weak. We have an ‘agency’ mentality more than a producer mentality. That is why our postharvest losses have stayed more or less the same for many years and our valuable natural resources such as minerals, etc. find their way out inside bulk containers in raw form. In the plantation sector we observe factories reminding ourselves how the British times must have been. You walk into a tea or rubber factory and you are walking into history. The story and the status is the same for coconut processing units as well. It is also important that there is a sense of history as well as a sense of worth to the community and the society at large by a manufacturing facility. This unfortunately is not quite what we observe. Even the recent and ongoing issue at Weliweriya shows how poorly integrated our industry is with the community. We have had quite a few examples from the past too with the Ranala Sulphuric Acid facility to name a well-known case. The planning community too is at fault for not understanding the relevant nexus between an industry and the community. There are a lot of learnings to be had from these incidents; unfortunately we move from one incident to another without demonstrating our ability to learn from the past. Politics and related emotionalism rather than some sound science appear to play a lead role rather than anything else. It is equally sad if one has to send samples all over the world for a slightest issue of a measurement and wait with bated breath for their reports! Even internally simple measurements taking weeks are not acceptable. If you cannot measure, you cannot manage is a simple adage that comes to the mind. If you are not on speaking terms with the neighbour, then too there has to be a problem of communications. Falling behind With the postcard I got to know about a factory and more about the community. Sri Lanka had the world’s first desiccated coconut (DC) factory in the 19th century. How many of us know about it and who has any knowledge on the location? We were a nation which led in exporting DC at one time, now coming behind Philippines simply because we failed to modernise our factories and failed in bringing in new technology schemes – no need to think of purchasing, we should develop and innovate too. Still we export DC in large quantities and some expensive chocolates that come into the country have our own DC in small quantities inside. The value chain analysis should be quite revealing of what we pay for the chocolates with the DC and the bulk DC as exports. The sweet taste can turn sour when you analyse it like this. Imagine as a child when you grow up you can walk into the factory and observe what is going on and may be even be part of an experiment in tasting. If you go in as a child to such a factory – especially a food factory – and spend some time, you have a friend for life. Walk into Cadbury factory in Birmingham in UK and many such others in developed countries and you will witness an interesting parallel. Factories are tourist attractions and learning centres. Now to achieve this type of development, it is necessary that one considers all this during the planning stage itself. A few factories in Sri Lanka do have viewing galleries but today’s BOQs do not consider these. We talk about brand development but only appear to think about exotic wrapping and an expensive advertisement campaign. You should not shut out the community through eight foot high walls but strive for the opposite. Rich ideas based on rich ideals You may say that this is a rich prescription for a poor economy. Today we are not exactly a poor economy though the role of manufacturing is not the dominant contributor. However, we should know that there is a distinct difference between economies that have access to technology rather those who have not. Sri Lanka seriously needs to develop a strategically-planned manufacturing sector utilising knowledge and creating high-end jobs. In my view our manufacturing economy stays poor and wakes up every day thinking of order books and a call from abroad for survival. The situation is not one of strength and it is evident that we do not proceed with rich ideas. The world’s largest ginger factory the picture postcard so vividly depicted had started in 1941, with just two wooden vats and a few tons of raw ginger; an excellent story of a micro enterprise excelling by daring to dream. The story says that they had a dream of becoming the world’s largest producer of confectionery ginger and today that dream is a reality. That is having rich ideas based on rich ideals, making your journey a certainty of getting you to the intended destination. (The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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