Driving local coir industry through innovations

Tuesday, 16 October 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Understanding the need for a de-fibering machine to take off the bristle fibres from a coconut husk, a job generally done by hand, Dhammika Rathnayake started planning a device for the task somewhere in 2000.

Years later, his efforts were proven successful with a steady stream of recognition coming his way, starting from the Presidential Award for Innovation in the years 2007 and 2008.

Rathnayake speaking to the Daily FT asserted that following the Presidential Awards, he received awards in 2009 at an innovation exhibition at the Moratuwa University, Best Entrepreneurs Award at the Industrial Development Board and a National Award at Shilpa 2009.

In the same year, he also won the gold at the 37th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva, under the machinery category, and the highly prestigious World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) Gold Award and cash prize at the event. He was also awarded by Canro Fibre Exports for his efforts in 2010. Rathnayake is also a nominee for the Ray Awards, to be held in memory of Sri Lanka’s foremost inventor, Ray Wijewardene.

“I was a technician before,” Rathnayake revealed. “However I was always interested in creating something that could help our people. When I learned that there were many failed attempts to create a coir fibre extracting machine to remove bristle fibre which is usually removed by expert hands, I began looking around for ideas to come up with a solution for this.”

He also noted that the demand for a successful machine is not only local but international. “This is something everyone attempted to do. There have been many machines built over time. However none of them stuck around for long due to technical issues.”

It was no easy task, Rathnayake added. The machine was built up through a trial and error method over a period of three to four years and received the patent certificate in 2005. He has invested in small quantities a total of Rs. 1 billion to make three defibering machines at the inception.

Giving it the commercial value it much deserves, Rathnayake has now sold 12 defibering machines in Sri Lanka, of which six are in Hambantota, five in Puttalam and one in Hanwella.  “The coir industry, which was once a lucrative trade, was slowly dying due to the danger and the manual work associated with it. In a coir mill, if not careful, physical harm can be caused, especially to the hands. Due to this reason, the youth over the years have abandoned the industry for safer jobs with security and more cash flow.”

In the Wayamba district, 99% of nearly 1,600 coir related industries have closed down as of now due to these reasons. However, with the invention of the machine, the safety hazards and manual labour for the extraction of bristle fibre is at a minimum, which will encourage more to join in and thereby reviving the industry.

Rathnayake also mentioned that Coconut Development Authority has commissioned ten machines from him to boost the industry in the Jaffna peninsula.

The issue currently associated with the invention is the high cost of the machine. Currently sold at Rs. 28 lakhs and at Rs. 40 lakhs (more advanced with resistors etc.), affordability of the machine is restricted to big companies. For this Rathnayake is now coming up with a model that could be sold at Rs. 3 to 4 lakhs to SMEs.

“I am designing a machine which people can keep at home and use on coconut husks used at home and by neighbours and carry on a small-scale business in this manner.” This, he said, would create jobs for smaller segments of the community, thereby supporting the economic progress of the country.

Currently, he is also working on a machine to remove coconut husks which he hopes to finish off and release to the market in the near future.