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‘Government temporarily takes one step forward after many backward steps on agriculture’

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By Dr. Hemakumara Nanayakkara

Ever since April 2021, Sri Lanka’s agriculture and plantation sectors have been beset by needless difficulties as a result of an announcement, seemingly made on a whim, that Sri Lanka would switch to completely organic agriculture – effective immediately.

In doing so, the Government has jarringly halted all progress on efforts to develop these critical sectors, pushing the entire nation back many steps in the decision to ban import and use of all agro-chemicals and inorganic fertilizer.

A conflict of intentions and egos

By issuing such an extreme proclamation without a shred of scientific analysis into how these concepts could be practically implemented in Sri Lanka, they have done more harm than good to the expansion of true organic agriculture.

This is unfortunate because, as a concept, organic agriculture has many benefits. However, unlike what has been portrayed, it is not simply a matter of reverting to ‘ancient practices’. There is a deep and complex science to organic cultivation.

None of these complexities were understood or considered when the imprudent decision to ban all inorganic inputs was first announced. The assumption that ‘organic’ is just adding compost to soil has been the detriment of the directive. Hence, it was decided that imported chemical inputs were not necessary, not because organic agriculture is practical, but because imports require the Government to spend more of the nation’s now dwindling foreign reserves.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

In the months that have followed, everyone from academics to industry experts and farmers on the ground have been venting their frustration at the total breakdown of their regular cultivation practices as a result of this dangerously unscientific approach to agricultural reform.

After much condemnation, it was finally announced at the start of August that the Government was reverting their position. While not admitting it and maintaining that the ban is still in effect, probably to save face, the fact that they are relenting on import of chelated minerals, fertilizer mixes and micro-nutrients for specialist applications including for hydroponic cultivation and floriculture”, even if temporary, is a slight relief.

It may be assumed that technicalities of what these terms mean may be enough to dissuade the public from asking too many questions. But anyone with passing knowledge of agriculture would understand that chelated minerals and fertilizer mixes contain the exact same inorganic inputs which the Government is overtly claiming to ban – namely: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK). These are the elements which are essential to plant nutrition and growth.

Prior to the invention of techniques to produce synthetic fertilizer in the early 1900s, guano – the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats was the only known reliable source of fertilizer with NPK suitable for commercial agriculture at that time. This pressing demand for fertilizer led to many predictions of mass starvation, and it would have come to pass were it not for the invention of the Haber-Bosch technique for the manufacture of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer.

While it is possible to obtain Phosphorus locally, and organic Potassium could be imported from natural mines – leaving aside the fact that supply chains are not in place to meet the entire national requirement – sourcing Nitrogen is much more problematic. That is because it is extremely difficult to obtain N from plant or animal sources at the levels necessary for commercial scale agriculture.

Currently, we use Urea for tea and paddy, which contains approximately 46% Nitrogen. By contrast, organic sources like Gliricidia offers only 4%, while cattle dung has 3.5% and poultry dung –with 4.5% nitrogen by composition.

Prior to the ban, NPK was used in paddy, tea, rubber and coconut, and after the latest relaxation, these are still the same inputs that are being used, so in practice the Government has taken 3 months to make a bad decision and then reverse it – all the while falsely maintaining that inorganic NPK is not acceptable.

Had the Government simply consulted with relevant experts in the field in an open and transparent manner, they could have avoided all of the detrimental effects which followed from this disastrous decision. While there mention of a “Presidential Task Force for a green socio-economy” at the outset, they have not been forthcoming about their logic or approach in any public forums.

We are aware that there is a person in that task force who has been presented as a professor who made the ludicrous claim that sea-weeds as tall as coconut trees can be harvested from the ocean and used as organic fertilizer. While it is true that such large seaweed growth does exist, it is only found in close proximity to the North Pole, hence it is of no relevance to Sri Lanka. We offer this example in order to shine a light on the absurd and utter lack of credible scientific information behind policy decisions at the highest levels of this Government.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it

If we continue to allow the State to intervene and interfere with the fundamentals of agriculture in Sri Lanka based on the whims of such individuals, what is the worst that could happen? Previously we were told that the import and use of all agrochemicals would be banned immediately. Thereafter, the deadline was pushed back to a period within 3 months – 1 cultivation season. Now they have temporarily reverted back to allowing agro-chemicals, but it is implied that these imports could once again be banned at any moment.

In the interim, the solution that is currently being offered is a “nitrogen extract” that will be used as a spray. No further details have been provided. We don’t know if this extract is organic, inorganic, from the moon or even Mars. All we do know is that the only possible high percentage nitrogenous extracts can only be obtained from a chemical base. If the Government is trying to deceive people, they may use chemically extracted nitrogen, which could in turn be sprayed on organic manure and distributed among farmers.

In effect, the Government is refusing to reveal what exactly we will be adding to our soil through such extracts. Until they do, we must continue to call for more clarity and transparency. This is especially crucial for any agricultural exports – especially tea – whose buyers are sensitive to Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs).

Another fact to consider: no country in the world has ever succeeded in going totally organic. There are however some cautionary examples from history of those who tried. The example of Bhutan has been often cited in recent months. There, it was announced that over a period of 20 years, Bhutan would systematically phase out inorganic inputs. Even after careful and intensive planning with broad stakeholder consultation and preparation, the country was only able to convert 10% of their arable lands into organic agriculture after 30 years of effort in total.

The author is a former State Minister of Agriculture, Former Governor of the Southern Province, and Sri Lanka’s only PhD in Organic Agriculture from the Post-Graduate Institute of Agriculture at the Peradeniya University

To be continued



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Eravur Fabric Park could transform sustainable textile manufacture in Sri Lanka

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Since the first announcement in June 2020, expectations have been high on the potential of the Eravur Fabric Processing Park to catalyze a new era for Sri Lankan textile and apparel manufacture.

Supported through the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Board of Investment (BOI) of Sri Lanka, working in close collaboration with the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), the apex body of the apparel industry in Sri Lanka, the vision for Eravur is beginning to take shape.

Of the allocated approx 300 acres of land, fifty have been allocated for the Park’s maiden investment of US$ 35 million to establish a state-of-the-art fabric mill. Negotiations are also underway with two international companies to infuse mega investments for the remainder. The Park is estimated to attract a cumulative investment of US$ 300 million. The zone is also seeking further investments towards Dyeing, Washing, Knitting, Weaving, and other associated and ancillary activities.

Cabinet approval for the Zone’s classification under the Strategic Development Projects Act was also secured, enabling the extension of tax and other relief and incentives to investors.

Rapid progress towards vertical integration

“We would like to see the first company commence commercial operations in the next 6 months to 1 year,” stated BOI Chairman Sanjaya Mohottala. “We have been very aggressive on timelines because of the clear consensus on the nationally significant value that the Park can generate. At present, all land has been demarcated, and water and electricity supply are being finalized. In excess of half the commercial land has been allocated or reserved, and we are seeing great demand. There is clear recognition locally and internationally as to the immediate potential. If necessary, we are able to expand the zone even further.”

Leveraged in support of Sri Lanka’s highly developed apparel manufacturing sector, which has steadily benchmarked itself on global standards for ethical, sustainable production and high levels of technical and technological expertise, Eravur’s promoters also see the project as an opportunity for Sri Lankan-made apparel to take global leadership on sustainability in its most holistic sense.

Mohottala explained further that the most immediate benefit from the Park’s establishment will be in the cost advantages and enhanced economies of scale gained through capacity expansion and vertical integration of domestic supply chains.

Currently, Sri Lanka has approximately 300 apparel manufacturing facilities across the country. By contrast, it has only 7 textile and raw material factories capable of producing fabric for export, and for conversion into garments for export. At its peak, Sri Lanka imported over 250,000 MT of fabric both for export-oriented apparel manufacturing and for local consumption in 2019, at a cost of US $ 2.2 billion.

In the context of unprecedented disruptions across global supply chains in particular and persistent commodity and currency volatility, increased availability of high quality raw materials will enable an immediate and drastic reduction in raw material costs, while also conserving foreign currency.

Increased domestic production of textiles also translates to a higher percentage of domestic value. If that threshold increases from its current 52% to 65%, it qualifies for a larger proportion of Sri Lankan exports for zero-duty benefits under GSP Plus1.

The culmination of a pioneering national journey in sustainability

The economic argument in favour of investing in Eravur is bolstered by its potential to also be the most sustainable venture of its kind in the entire Asian region, with local stakeholders having already committed to establishing extensive renewable energy facilities, water recycling facilities, science-based targets, and circular business models.

At a macro-level, increased local production capacity will contribute significantly to all these targets by reducing the end-to-end length of Sri Lanka’s apparel supply chains. This in turn enables tighter backward integration and lower carbon emissions.

Taking a cue from the Sri Lankan textile and apparel’s industry’s outstanding achievements on environmental sustainability to date, the Zone is being designed from the ground-up to facilitate and incentivize sustainability in every facet of its operations. In terms of fabric processing, the main focus is on wastewater treatment.

Mohottala continues: “Sri Lanka’s environmental standards for industries are quite stringent, especially compared with regional competitors. A key feature of the Zone will be its central wastewater treatment facility with a sea outfall, which will require a high standard of treatment. Fortunately, we already have strong expertise available locally, with many of Sri Lanka’s textile producers having established facilities on par with global best practices on wastewater treatment. We have used this to our advantage by calling in the local industry’s technical experts and drawing on their pioneering experiences to optimize wastewater treatment protocols at Eravur.”

Adding that this will be one of many positive attributes all stakeholders downstream of the textiles produced at the Zone can lay claim to, Mohottala says, “With the greater localization of production, we also gain improved oversight and control over environmental standards within the Zone. This also enables greater transparency, traceability, and accountability across the supply chain, which in turn will confer preferable competitive advantages to Sri Lankan apparel exporters. In addition, this will empower brands and retailers to make clear and credible claims to genuine sustainable sourcing.”

An end-to-end opportunity

Another significant advantage for Eravur is that it is purpose-built with the most advanced environmentally friendly technology available. This will also promote efficiency in energy and water consumption, as well as additional infrastructure for recycling and recovery of water used in production, for which the BOI aims to provide investors with additional incentives.

Notably, Eravur also enjoys a high level of solar irradiance and consistent high-wind conditions, making any manufacturing facility established in the area, ideally suited for solar and potentially, wind turbine power generation.

“Augmentation of the Zone’s energy requirements with plentiful renewable energy will enable cost savings on the energy-intensive aspects of wastewater recycling. Given the consistent annual reduction in the cost of solar and wind energy, the conditions at Eravur are another unique attraction for investment into the Zone, and potentially enables the entire supply chain to utilize global incentivizes around responsible and sustainable production,” Mohottala said.

In addition to the wastewater treatment protocols, the Zone will also include a sludge treatment facility, with further trials already underway for responsible disposal. These include tests using micro-algae to breakdown sludge, as well as utilizing sludge to fuel furnaces and as bricks with a bio-mat mask.

The final and potentially most vital contribution which the Eravur Fabric Processing Zone is the empowering impact it will have on the lives of Sri Lankans in Batticaloa. At present, the district has an estimated population of 621,887, of which, an estimated 60,912 individuals are below the poverty line. As at 2019 – prior to the pandemic – unemployment in the region stood at 6.4%

“With the development of the Zone, we will be able to create thousands of stable, well-paying direct and in-direct jobs. This could prove to be one of the most transformative developments to take place in the Eastern Province in recent history,” Mohottala concluded.

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‘The insurance industry continues to drive the message of safety and optimism’

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The Insurance Association of Sri Lanka has been working overtime to ensure the smooth operation of the insurance industry with the objective of spreading awareness and inculcating knowledge on the importance of insurance. Similar to multiple other industries, in global and local contexts, the insurance industry has experienced its share of fluctuations with the onset of the pandemic and displayed its resilience to the resultant challenges.

Dinesh Yogaratnam, the Chairman of the Marketing and Sales Forum (MSF) of the Insurance Association of Sri Lanka (IASL), shared his perspectives on the marketing of insurance during these tumultuous times. He expounded on the ways in which the MSF of the IASL adapted to overcome the hurdles of the circumstances that arose during 2021, while promoting insurance penetration.

“The Insurance Association of Sri Lanka (IASL) is the industry body comprised of all the Life and General Insurance companies that operate in the market. The Marketing and Sales Forum (MSF) is a subcommittee thereof and as the name implies, addresses matters pertaining to the sales and marketing of insurance products and services. Further, the MSF also carries out various initiatives to increase insurance penetration in the country via education and knowledge-sharing. One of the major efforts of the MSF this year is to help the public better appreciate what insurance is. In addition, helping them understand how, when, and why they should purchase a policy, so that they may provide themselves, their loved ones, their assets, as well as their enterprises with the financial protection required, are key objectives.

“The MSF has resorted to using mainly digital and print media for its insurance promotion activities. Employing a two-pronged approach, whereby, the MSF under the IASL banner is carrying various pieces of communications on social media channels and is working with the country’s print houses and their digital arms to disseminate information and educate the public, the individual companies too have been encouraged to promote their products and services, as well as to carry knowledge building pieces of communication on their own platforms. Through this, we are witnessing a heightened level of activity and dialogue across social media channels.”

Giving further insight into the current insurance marketing landscape prevalent in the country, Dinesh Yogaratnam stated, “The insurance industry has grown in 2021 by approximately 14% in terms of Gross Written Premium as of the end of the 1st quarter; while long term insurance has seen significant growth, general insurance has contacted very marginally. As an industry, we are confident that the growth trajectory we have witnessed in the first half will continue to the end of the year.

“With the pandemic impeding movement, insurers had to very quickly realign themselves to front the customer both for new business acquisition as well as for premium collection, equipping themselves with various digital assets and recalibrating their sales teams to embrace a new hybrid model of interacting with and engaging the customer. From a servicing perspective; industry players have infused many digital interventions as part of their customer touchpoint strategy so that customers are able to seamlessly interact with them and obtain whatever services they require, regarding their policies. On the customer’s side, the pandemic has made people appreciate the need for a meaningful health insurance plan and they have also begun to appreciate the need for long-term insurance. The Sri Lankan insurance industry has always stood by society not only during times of normalcy but more so during times of widespread calamity and dire need. In this respect, the industry has come forward to pay COVID-related claims, irrespective of the fact that pandemics are excluded as part of insurance contracts.”

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SL’s Kithul-based treacle and jaggery for Gulf markets

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By Hiran H.Senewiratne

A local company is now in the process of venturing into the lucrative export Gulf market through its flagship product, Kithul based treacle and jaggery. Initially, the company will target the UAE market and afterwards other Arab countries.

“Both our products were introduced to the local market as niche products one year ago and are already exporting to Australia and several other countries, chairman, C-lon Kitchen & Healthy Foods, Rohan Wijeweera told The Island Financial Review.

‘The Gulf region is a lucrative market and there is a big demand for pure Kithul treacle among Arabs, which could be harnessed if we supply quality products, he said.

Wijeweera adds: “Now we have secured an order from a Gulf online sales company to market these products under the tag, ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ under the “Deegayush” brand and initially two containers will be exported to Dubai most probably next month. After that we will be targeting Canada and the UK markets.

“Kithul treacle and jaggery are made from the sap harvested directly by tappers living in border areas of the Sinharaja forest in the Rathnapura district. We have come to a forward buying agreement with around 250 tappers in this region, whom we also support by paying a premium price and also by some other CSR initiatives.

“The sap is then brought to our processing plant in Piliyandala where we process it. Kithul treacle is known to contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants, organic acids which are bioactive, amino acids that have many functions, beta carotenes that produce vitamin A and ascorbic acid or vitamin C that improves immunity.

“Thus, it is known to yield as many health benefits as Kithul jaggery. It prevents arthritis, improves complexion, alleviates constipation, aids weight loss and combats blood sugar. For nearly the same reasons as Kithul jaggery, Kithul treacle or syrup is witnessing massive demand locally as well as internationally.

“Today the demand for pure and natural Kithul products far outstrips the supply and due to lack of sap many local manufactures add sugar and other artificial sweeteners to the products thereby diluting the health benefits of it. However, we ensure not to add artificial ingredients and due to this our products are sold at a premium price from leading super markets under the brand name, “Deegayush”.

“Behind the scarcity of Kithul products there are several reasons, such as the shortage of tappable jaggery palms, fewer people being engaged in this industry due to the inherent risks and the profession not being accepted among the youth.

“Also less numbers are involved in jaggery palm planting since the tree takes around 7 years to mature before being fit for tapping.

“I am also looking at making Kithul treacle and jaggery from sugarcane, once again, targeting the export market as well.

“We are also manufacturing several immune boosters from locally sourced material. We next plan to introduce a curd to the market. More details could be obtained from, ceykitchen@gmail.com”

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