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Red Lady for our economy

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 13 December 2012 00:14

This is not dressing up the article with the colour of Santa and fantasising as the year come to a close but about a fruit and an economic impact. Some may anticipate with bated breath numbers emanating from immigration about the tourist arrivals to the country. We have placed so many eggs in this one basket and if the numbers do not add up it is heartbreaking and may well dampen the season’s cheer.

It is important that we just not concentrate on pure numbers but the quality within numbers. Tourism as a numbers game with planning concentrating only on arrivals and rooms there is no real room for innovation. You have to resign yourself to how someone else decides to spend their disposable income. If we come up in someone’s itinerary it is well and good. However, we may be missing many opportunities by concentrating on just one thing.

It is no secret that our soil is productive though lately loading it with subsidised fertiliser had been the order of the day having misunderstood the value of top soil. Can empires be built on simple fruits and veggies? Of course give the example of tea though it has not been our empire as we have merely being a silent supplier with some significant environmental costs.

Imagine lining up a 100 fruits and vegetable varieties of higher quality and perceived potential and setting out to maximise the return on yield by imaginative understanding of potential value chain. It is to stress that line of thinking that papaya is taken as an example today. It is something we should actively engage in and is a good New Year wish to have.

It is interesting that what we come across as exotic fruits were the name given for fruit varieties found in tropics as they were varieties not seen elsewhere. The invaders and conquerors were perhaps enamoured by the sight and taste of so many varieties and having lacked a viable alternative names came out for most of those as variants of apple.

As a result perhaps we have pineapple, wood apple, custard apple, rose apple, etc. It just may be that all these are better and superior in nutritional and taste terms than the conventional Grannysmith apple too. A fact that we simply forget nor understand.



One particular fruit selected for this column today is papaya termed as the golden fruit. Papaya is native to Central America and found its way to India and other parts of Asia and Africa by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. In fact Christopher Columbus termed it as “the fruit of angels”.

Analyse closely there are many nutritional attributes that papaya is supposed to provide – some listed properties are as a digestive aid, reducing risk factors for heart disease, anti-inflammatory effects, supporting immunity boosting and protecting against muscular degeneration. Have papaya for breakfast and it is supposed to help you in cutting down risk of colon cancer.

The list is impressive and it looks like unlike an apple, papaya has the ability to keep many types of specialist consultants away and not simply a doctor! Well it is almost sad to see the way these wonderful fruit is transported and ripened, etc., in our country. The treatment meted out to fellow fruit cousins from overseas is so different.

It is time Sri Lanka that packaging and transport is given due importance for all types of agricultural produce. It is a poor show of understanding when one witnesses riots on streets when better packaging and transport is mooted. Somewhere something is not quite right and the nation is paying a big price.

Can papaya helps in building mighty business empires? Well the advent of Red Lady to Sri Lanka has to some extent given emphasis to the growing of a particular variety. When a variant come from overseas the emphasis and the interest always appear to be at a pitch higher than if the fruit has been with us for a long time.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is well known in India and outside too. Well she held the title once as the richest woman in India and today leads the pioneering Biocon which she founded. She studied brewing and after returning to India found that brewing is a closed profession to females.

Knowledge means power of a different kind and helps an imaginative mind. When an opportunity presented to start an industry based on enzyme based biotechnology she knew that what she knew could equally be applied in this area.

She started with extracting papain from papaya latex and papain is the enzyme present in papaya. Papain has been an ingredient to the food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industries. Papain is also used in beer making to prevent beer turning hazy.

Fortunately for India Kiran knew through this the vast opportunities that lay in waiting and a pioneer in biotechnology was born. Having taken Biocon to a world class status through innovation and perseverance it was apt that New York Times called her Mother of Invention in India. Papaya showed the way to Biocon. Interestingly for Kiran too, the first place of activity took place in a garage of a rented house again demonstrating pioneers and their enthusiasm in doing other things in a garage than parking your auto!

Her key statement these days is to keep questioning the business model all the time. Wise indeed and her experience and demonstration are a lesson to all those who keep prescribing and believe in staid models of the past without any built in excitement. Today Biocon is a biopharma enterprise and Kiran produces through novel fermentation drugs such as Lovastatin and oral insulin. This is why business of science is exciting as well as has a multiplier effect to the economy.

Kiran was not the only one to start with papaya. Jain Agricultural Systems is a global leader in drip irrigation who started small. Recently the company was acquired by the International Finance Corporation (IFC). It is stated that papain is what put the founder Bhavarlal Jain on the international map.

Jain, a law graduate, had been inspired by a quote: “Agriculture: A profession with a future” has bought a banana powder (now what can we do with powdering Nethrum Palam our own exotic banana variety plus other multicolour banana varieties) plant and converted it to produce papain.

Through in-house R&D he perfected the production of high grade papain which was of the highest quality which opened up global doors. Today he has ventured to combine modern processing technologies with local agro resources a lesson that we too should be keen to learn. One visit to our rice mills, rubber factories, desiccated coconut units, cinnamon processing units and even tea factories will indicate that you are witnessing technology history in our factories where time appears to have stood very still.

Need for entrepreneurs

We also need entrepreneurs who are keen to explore and move into new areas. We just need to position opportunities in front of a wider audience hoping to attract someone’s attention or awaken a pioneering spirit. It is important that when we see nature’s bounty we can think of many opportunities. If one who still wants to trade in papaya by the number then that person is no different to the person who intends developing the economy by only counting the tourist arrivals. The depth is missing in such thinking which indicates a knowledge gap.

When one views the nature of job creation within Biocon as it moves into a position of global dominance one can understand the importance of such ventures in creating high quality jobs in an economy. The discussion on relevance of what one teaches within universities is irrelevant when ventures of this nature are not available in the country.

Just consider how many specialised jobs are created within the tea industry in a year for science and engineering graduates let alone those who may come with PhDs in biochemistry and nutrition. To equip a person for most of today’s industry in Sri Lanka you may not need four years of graduate education is my comment for today’s finishing line and hopefully one will give it some thought rather than getting angry!

 (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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