Oh, nuts! Coconuts!

Thursday, 10 March 2011 00:06 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The accusations and counter accusations abound. Have we imported coconuts to the country?

If ‘yes,’ then that would be for the first time in history... recent history anyway, as we can never say about the past. If ‘no’ is the answer, then we have not perpetrated a sacred sin but may not have solved the simple economic problem either.

When you work on demand and supply while keeping prices down, you do have to resort to external means to keep the cross over points in these simple economist’s curve at a favourable or an acceptable position – especially during election times.


Yet it is simply not quite straightforward to import coconuts. There are issues of plant quarantine and current accepted norms with respect to biological product movements across nations. That is why when the initial idea was mooted the growers were not happy.

Understanding all these aspects and meeting the ‘pol sambol’ and ‘pol kiri’ needs of our ever hungry citizen is a challenging task. We also learnt in the process that the intended coconuts from Kerala were small in size. A minor triumph for our nut?

Before we go overboard on nuts, it is important to note that a coconut for a Sri Lankan is a sacred material. A child usually writes his or her first essay on this tree – or used to before Facebook set in. We can recite 365 uses of the tree – one per each day of the year, which really is extolling the virtues of this miracle tree; thus the reason for naming it the ‘Tree of Life!’

Ray’s scheme

Dr. Ray Wijewardene would have been aghast to note that the first response was to introduce the subsidised fertiliser scheme into operation. The hue and cry that arose from the producers was also with regard to absence of subsidised fertiliser.

This is a basic level of understanding – apply fertiliser and if that is costly subsidise it, which in turn will result in an enhanced production of nuts, thus keeping everyone happy. Who is picking up the bill here? Are we really supporting economic development in this way? Is subsidy-driven happiness the answer to many of the agriculture woes that we facing today?

Ray himself demonstrated in his coconut estate at Kakkapaliya called ‘Kohomba Estate’ how to realise highest nuts per acre minus urea but with the application of gliricidia leaves as the nitrogen source. He did not apply any urea but followed agriculture practices of burying residue and the use of dolomite, etc.

In turn he realised a yield that was to beat his fertiliser applying neighbour’s yeild. He was demonstrating a number coming to 6,000 whereas the national average was 2,500 nuts! He again ran the coconut estate with the biomass realised from gliricidia generating electricity with the help of a gasifier.

There are numerous writings on his estate. Many have visited the estate. We used to send our students to view it and to understand the underlying philosophy of self-reliance. Most students however upon return get overwhelmed by the conventional practices and thinking.

His estate was unique. What we need is such estates to be the norm rather than the exception. Yet sadly, planners do not seriously pursue such models. They are happy to be victims of the traditional market forces established by lack of vision and understanding. We need change agents who as Ray were supposed to be ones who had a positive vision and relentlessly pursued that to an end. Hope Kohomba Estate is still doing justice to Ray’s ideals.

Desiccated coconut

An interesting product of coconuts is desiccated coconut or DC as it is known. The expatriate Sri Lankans turn to DC to get their ‘pol sambol’. Many may leave our shores for good but the food habits stays on longer.

The production of DC is all about removal of water from the coconut kernel under hygienic conditions. Many Sri Lankans are unaware that Sri Lanka had the world’s first DC factory in 1863.

The British wanted to send out coconut products and they identified the folly of transporting the huge amounts of moisture associated with kernel and so turned it into desiccated coconut.

The world is still consuming our DC and we are the second largest exporter of DC. They get used in world famous confectionery products and also in popular coffee parlours across countries. Most may not know the place of origin including Sri Lankans as we have not branded the product. The consumer sees the packaged brand.

Not learning this lesson of dehydration with respect to other products of agriculture from the British, we are still trying as a nation. One major reason for significant post harvest losses is absence of proper drying facilities. Even in DC after the unique beginning we have lost our way to the second place as we have failed to modernise our plants and processes.

A DC miller’s life has become an eternal struggle to keep the prices and product competitive in the global market place. No real innovation is visible and no attempt to innovate is also seen.

It is also a sad fact of life that this industry does not find favour when engineering or science graduates opt for mandatory industrial training. There is thus no infusion of young blood into this processing sector. The sooner the industry understands this situation as well as the opportunities that lay hidden, the better it would be for all of them.

Philippines, with an aggressive modernisation drive, has captured the global top spot. It is also turning coconut water into a aseptically packaged drink blending it with other fruits and running a value added product system, whereas in Sri Lanka searching how to treat this liquid waste stream had stayed on as a perennial problem despite many pointers on the right way to go.

Innovative approaches needed

Coconut being so close to our living, the concept of industrialisation and use of products of therein appears to be alien. Our main focus is serving overseas markets and needs. The Sri Lankan coconut consumer will consume time and energy and sustain the inefficiency at home while preserving a certain unique Sri Lankan existence or a way of living.

Consider the home made coconut milk an essential ingredient for our cooking. We painstakingly grate using inefficient systems and eke out what we want by squeezing with water and some by blending.

The former leads to huge wastage, as the home process is unable to extract much of milk proteins. Dietary fibre will be lost in significant quantities. If processed products are accepted and the process if moved into an industry with consumers accepting packaged products, much of the losses could be avoided. It is easily visualised by the coconut oil production of today, which has moved into be an industry from the chekkus – extraction devices – of yesterday.

In today’s climate we need to understand resource conservation and the need to improve on our practices and make certain concessions on our traditional feelings. This is the same with coconut fibre extraction.

We carry out retting in big earthen ponds (husk soaking pits) with people immersed waist deep and with significant water pollution. The quality of work life is extremely poor as well. We have taken some of these processes for granted and technology employed had stayed the same.

It is interesting to note what happened to coir dust mountains that were present on sites some time back. The emergence of coir briquettes had meant these mountains have vanished, finding use in countries such as Holland in a big way.

The lessons of water holding capacity and as potting media and supporting agriculture and horticulture should not be lost on us and we too should be using these products in some way. However, there is much less knowledge migration and one segment of the industry is happy earning rich rewards.

As market forces are again at play, how knowledge and practices could be transferred across thus enriching some starved segments in agriculture is important to be considered. Making a correction definitely will need some effort plus an innovative approach.

Tree of life

Cocos Nucifera which we used to call in earlier times as ‘Neli’ is our tree of life. As a versatile tropical plant I can still state that it is heavily underdeveloped in a national context. Industrial processes need to come in and mere plantation mindset need to be kept in check if one is to succeed.

Let this nut and tree be an industrial raw material – from food, industrial separations, environmental protection and to energy storage! As stated last, the nut will also play a role in nanotechnology as well. With such additions we will have more than 365 uses and one indeed can be proud of our humble nut. Yet purely waiting passively will not do neither the nut nor us any good.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis 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 a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on [email protected])

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