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Current Trends in the Coconut Industry



by Dr. P. G. Punchihewa

“It’s an old and common saying: The coconut tree affords meat, drinks and cloth, true. I’ll also like to add – toddy, wine, vinegar, oil, milk and honey … all eatables, besides it affords other necessaries as mats, brooms, bottles, dishes and ropes” –so wrote Robert Knox the English sailor and trader in 1681 who spent 19 years in captivity in the island. .Long before Knox, coconut had played a vital role in the lives of the people of Sri Lanka. The first coconut plantation in the island, (cocopalm garden three yojanas in length according to Culavamsa )- may be even in the world-, was established during the reign of Aggabodhi I, He ruled from 571A.D to 604 A.D.

But Knox’s statement was the first which spelled out the many uses of the coconut tree in detail.

Coconut, a subsistence crop had to await the arrival of the colonial powers in the island, particularly the British, to change to a plantation crop. With the finding of new uses of coconut oil, in the manufacture of margarine, candles and soap in Europe, the demand for coconut oil increased by leaps and bounds. Accordingly all the major colonial powers started the cultivation of coconut in their colonies. The British in India and Sri Lanka, the Dutch in East Indies, French in Africa, and the Germans in the Pacific. The ‘Forward’ written by Sir W.H. Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, to ‘Coconuts-the Consoles of the East’ published by Smith and Pape, speaks of the keen interest shown by the British in the cultivation of coconut as follows.

“I know of no field of tropical agriculture that is so promising and I do not think in the whole world there is a promise of so lucrative an investment of time and money as in this industry. The world is only just awakening to the value of coconut oil in the manufacturing of artificial butter of the highest quality and of the byproduct copra cake as a food for cattle.”

Accordingly, the colonial government encouraged the cultivation of coconut, particularly in the North -West of the island. “The rapid expansion of the coconut industry had begun in the late 1850s, but the pace had been accelerated in the 1860s .The acreage went up from about 250,000 in the 1860s to 850,000 in the first decade of the 20th century (K.M. De. Silva: A History Sri Lanka page 287).

Apart from encouraging the rapid expansion of the area under coconut, the English diverted the industry to processing of coconut products as well. The establishment of a crushing plant for milling copra into oil and copra meal commenced around 1830 and there had been regular shipments of oil from Ceylon to Europe. In 1853 Sri Lanka had exported, 33,900 gallons. (Samuel Baker: Eight Years in Ceylon: pg. 158.)

In 1855 soap making commenced and several kinds of soap were produced and exported. Sri Lanka was thus ahead of most of the coconut producing countries that were continuing to export only copra. The 19th century also saw Sri Lanka taking another important step in processing of coconut products.

Following the industrial revolution the need arose for a cheap ingredient for the ever increasing demand for candy among the working class in the UK. Coconut proved to be ideal. But the practice at the time to import the whole nut was cumbersome and expensive. Experiments had been carried out in the UK to find a solution. It was discovered that grated coconut meat heated on steam tables resulted in it not becoming rancid and the result was desiccated coconut. The first desiccated coconut factory was established at Dematagoda and by 1890 Sri Lanka had exported 6,000 tons of desiccated coconut. In 1900 it had gone up to 60,000 tons. At that time, Sri Lanka was the leading exporter of desiccated coconut.

Similarly, the first fiber mill was set up in the 19th century and in 1853, 2,380 tons of coir had been exported. Coconut thus came to be one of the three major exports of the island, the other two being tea and rubber.

Along with the plantation and industrial sectors coconut continued as a small holder crop serving mostly the needs of the local population. Coconut being an important food item of the people, with the increasing population, the consumption increased and by mid nineteen -fifties the export of kernel products, mainly desiccated coconut, coconut oil and copra decreased. A study done in 1969 for UN/ECAFE reported as follows “The fall in Ceylon’s exports of both copra and coconut oil in recent years particularly since 1964 is attributable to the progressive decline in exportable surpluses owing to a rising domestic consumption” (The Coconut Industry of Asia’ page 58) .

The downward trend continues .The exportable surplus as a percentage of production has varied from a high of 38.2% in 1985 to a low of 14.0%in 2007. (Coconut Statistics 2017 C.D.A page 11.)Product wise a volume of 56,144 MT coconut oil exported in 1985 declined to 6,310 in 2017 and 52,157 MT of desiccated coconut to 29,418 MT for the same period.

However there are a few , new kernel products –virgin coconut oil, coconut cream (milk) and powder and coconut water which are just making an entry into the export market (page 12 CDA).In 2017 the kernel product exports have brought in $312,316, 000.

It has been able to reach these levels of exports only due to a new trend in imports. To augment the local supplies Sri Lanka has been importing vegetable oils and fats for some time .But from 2005, it had increased by leaps and bounds. Till then imports were mainly for industrial purposes. But from 2005 large volumes of crude palm oil have been increasingly imported for edible purposes as well, reaching 121,706 MT in 2015.This is in addition to the import of small volumes of soya oil, sunflower oil and coconut oil. The total value of vegetable oils and fats imports in 2017 had been Rs. 29,662,257,394 of which the largest volume was for crude palm oil and palm oil products. (Table 23, 24 CDA.)It also cushioned the local nut price increase in order to satisfy the domestic consumers.

However as against the declining value of kernel products a redeeming factor is the enhanced export earnings from non-kernel products which has amounted to $ 283,872,000), in 2017compared to $94,989,000 in 2005 and $ 188,722,000 in 2010 .Products like coir pith and molded coir products for use in horticulture and increased volume of activated carbon have accounted for this enhanced export earnings.

There is a number of factors responsible for this huge drop in exports in kernel products. While the Philippines and Indonesia have vast extents brought under coconut, running into several millions of hectares, in Sri Lanka coconut acreage is shrinking due to urbanization, opening up of new industrial ventures, fragmentation of holdings, crop diversification, pests, diseases, and drought. From a peak of 1.15 million acres in 1962 the area under coconut decreased to 1.09 million acres in 2015.The study done by the Department of Census and Statistics in 2005 revealed that the aggregate extent under coconut crop at national level has declined by about 5% during the period from 1982-2002( page 4 of the study)


In 2006 the ‘Weligama Wilt’ was reported and it was estimated that 300,000 palms at the initial stages and more in repeated cycles had to be removed. March 16,2019 ,Daily Mirror reported of 96,000 coconut trees on 1,200 acres to be felled to construct the Bingiriya Free Trade Zone. Felling of coconut trees is continuing. And the production of coconut has remained static. Since 1980 Sri Lankan coconut production had exceeded 3,000 million nuts only few times. The average yield is around 2,500 nuts per acre per annum.

However it is noticed that in 2017 the domestic consumption has come down to 1,700 million nuts from a high of 2437 million nuts in 2008.In earlier years (2005) the domestic consumption was calculated at 95.52 fresh nuts and 1, 02 kg of coconut oil per head per annum approximately. (Coconut Statistics CDA 2005). But the 2017 report dumps fresh coconut consumption, coconut oil consumption, milk powder consumption and adjustment stocks all under domestic consumption. (Coconut Statistics 2017).With a provisional population of 21.44 million in 2017, it is surprising how the consumption had come down so drastically particularly when in the previous year it was reported that the domestic consumption was 2119 million nuts and the provisional population 21.20 million. It is worth studying this situation in the next few years as to why it happened.

Efforts to increase production and productivity have not had much effect. Sri Lanka has introduced only four high yielding varieties since 1960 the bulk coming from the two earlier varieties. The total number of seedlings issued from 2008 to 2017 is 386,555 (in thousands) ( Sri Lanka Coconut Statistics 2017). On the basis of 64 trees to an acre this should cover an area of more than 600,000 acres! By now some of them should be bearing. Obviously there is something wrong with the quality of seedlings or statistics!

From the above facts and figures, it is obvious that the future of the coconut industry in the island is not that rosy. Unless the industry and the government take corrective measures, an industry with so much of potential is on the path of no return. A study covering all the aspects of the industry and involving all stake holders is a necessity.

In the coconut industry there are many stake holders. Starting from coconut growers there are the processors of different products. Copra, desiccated coconut ,coconut oil, virgin coconut oil ,coconut water ,coconut cream, fiber products, coconut shell charcoal ,activated carbon and many others. They all operate in water tight compartments. There should be a forum chaired by the C.D.A where they could meet and discuss their sectoral and industry problems regularly.

Unlike in rubber or tea it is not possible to get actual and correct figures except for exports of coconut products. The total extent under coconut is taken from the agricultural census conducted once in ten years. By the time the figures are available nearly eleven to twelve years have lapsed and much change would have taken place on ground specially with felling of coconut trees for various activities. Therefore reliance on them for planning for the industry would naturally give a wrong picture.

In order to assess the current situation of the extent of land under coconut and production levels, the feasibility of conducting a regular random or sample survey under the direction of the Department of Census and Statistics should be considered. Field level officers of the Coconut Cultivation and Research Boards could be used for this survey.

Earlier domestic consumption was calculated on the basis of the household income and expenditure survey conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics. Now the basis of calculation is not provided with the overall figure.

Although recently exports of non-kernel products have increased in volume and value ultimately it too depends on the increased production of coconut. As such it should be the concern of processors and exporters of kernel as well as non-kernel products to get involved with projects to increase production .They have the capital and a drop in nut production may affect their outputs.

One last question is how long Sri Lanka is going to depend on import of vegetable oils to sustain the export of kernel products. Economically and health wise whether it is worth should draw the attention of the government and others concerned.

There is a more important aspect to it. In Sri Lanka coconut is important as a source to meet the daily requirement of nutrients particularly of the lower income groups. The study done in 2002 by the Department of Census and Statistics reveals that out of the daily requirement of the nutrients needed by the Sri Lankans 15%calories,5% of protein and 70% of fat are derived from the source of coconut.

“Dr. Mary G. Enig, a nutritionist/biochemist of international renown for her research on the nutritional aspects of fats and oil addressing the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community 36th annual session had the following to say.

“Recently published research has shown that natural coconut fat in the diet leads to a normalization of body lipids, protects against alcohol damage to the liver ,and improves the immune system’s anti-inflammatory response .Clearly there has been increasing recognition of health supporting functions of the fatty acids found in coconut. Now it can be recognized for another kind of functionality: the improvement of the health of mankind.” This was in 1999.

In 2006 ,Conrado S. Dayritt Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology ,College of Medicine ,University of the Philippines at the technical meeting of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community stated that “the chemical properties and biologic actions that make coconut oil superior to other oils for cooking and health use ,viz chemical nature and stability ,absorbability, metabolism, physiologic, and pharmacologic actions, antimicrobial, immune-regulatory and anti-inflammatory.”

In this context, is it in the interest of the health of the people of Sri Lanka that we should continue to use imported vegetable oils in large quantities and barter a time tested precious, healthy oil for the sake of some additional dollars?

Our slogan should be increase the production and productivity of coconut, increase the domestic consumption of coconut and increase the coconut exports.


(From String of Archaeological sites in the East coast and other articles by Dr.P.G.Punchihewa Former Secretary Ministry of Coconut Industries and former Executive Director Asian and Pacific Coconut Community Jakarta.)

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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