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Value addition will boost coconut industry

Total world production of coconut increased substantially from 35 million tonnes around 1980 to almost 50 million tonnes recently. Yet this industry in Sri Lanka is in crisis today. The farm gate price has shot up from around Rs 18 per nut to about Rs 35 to Rs 40 per nut and even higher at Rs 65 per nut in urban areas.


Spinning, weaving and matting of coir employs large numbers of people in the south of India and Sri Lanka.

Coconut production in the country has gone down from 2,909 million nuts in 2008 to 2762 million nuts in 2009, a drop of 147 million nuts.

The production in January to October 2010 had been 2,068 million nuts as against 2,478 million nut in the same period in 2009, a reduction of 16.5%, although the cropping potential is in the region of 3500 million nuts per year.

Yield varies from region to region (3500 to 6000 nuts/ha/year), which is due to a number of factors; weather and fertilizer use and the lag period for response may be 3 to 4 years.

One tree may yield on average 70 to 100 nuts to a maximum of 150 nuts per year. The kernel (copra, coco-water and shell) comprises 65 per cent of total weight, while the husk contributes 35 per cent.

Therefore, medium to long-term strategies should be in place to avert crisis situations, such as that is seen now.

Value addition

Sri Lanka has become as one of the leading processors of what had previously been considered a waste product into a form suitable for horticultural use. While other sources may be available, companies in Sri Lanka have been investing heavily in an infrastructure to guarantee consistency and quality of the products, though this still lacks perfection and exploitation of its vast potential.

Coir

Coir fibres are extracted from the husks surrounding the coconut . In most areas coir is a by-product of copra production, and the husks are left on the fields as a mulch or used as fertilizer because of high potash content.


Sri Lanka has become one of the leading processors of what had previously been considered a waste product into a form suitable for horticultural use.

India and Sri Lanka are the main countries where coir is extracted by traditional methods for the commercial production of a variety of products, including brushes and brooms, ropes and yarns for nets and bags and mats, and padding for mattresses.

However, worldwide only a small part of the fibres available are currently used for these purposes. The average fibre yield is dependent on geographical area and the variety of the coconut tree.

In Sri Lanka and south India , for example, where the best quality fibres are produced the average yield is 80 to 90 g fibre per husk. Caribbean husks, by contrast, are relatively thick and may yield up to 150 g of fibre.

Husks are composed of 70 per cent pith and 30 per cent fibre on a dry weight basis. The ratio of yield of long, medium and short fibre, respectively, is on average 60:30:10. The total world production of coir fibre (included short fibres) is estimated to be in the range of five and six million tonnes per year.

Only a small part (less than 10 per cent) of this potential enters commercial trade. Continuous expanding production of brown fibre reached 216 000 tonnes (70 per cent India, 27 per cent Sri Lanka) , while white fibre production (again, mainly in India) has remained stable at 125 000 tonnes.

Coir markets

Coir has faced a declining market for traditional products in recent decades. Despite their comparatively low trade value, the fibres provide significant economic support to populations in specific areas of the producing countries.


The coconut industry in Sri Lanka is in crisis today

Women in these areas are particularly dependent on coir production for their livelihood.

Traditionally, coir has been processed into a range of products such as yarns for the production of floor coverings, mats and matting, cordage and nets, bristle fibres for brooms and brushes, and for use with domestic mattress and upholstery industries.

These markets have been dwindling in recent years due to strong competition from synthetic products.

However, there is a firm trend in the industrial countries towards the production and use of more environmentally benign products and systems, which may help to mitigate the adverse ecological affects of current production methods.

The effects of chemical industries, atmospheric degradation, global warming, fast-declining natural resource base, deforestation, waste production, pollution and similar global issues have increased the demand for environmentally benign products.

Renewable raw materials such as plant fibres and products, therefore, may have good market perspectives if they can be produced at an economically competitive price and on a scale where quality and supply can be guaranteed.

Currently, expanding export markets for coir can be seen in the demand for erosion control mats and other geotextile applications for civil engineering, or in the demand from the automotive and mattress industries for rubberised coir pads.

Market diversification

Cost effective and environmentally safe technologies have been investigated for drying, bleaching, softening and dyeing of fibre and yarn, and for fast printing of coir products to encourage increased demand for coir products (fibre, yarn, door mats, matting, runners and carpets).

Marketing of ecologically safe coir products should imply and include, however, the whole production chain from fibre extraction to end product and disposal or re-use when no longer required.

It follows that production methods should be safe for the health of the workers involved in the coir industry, without negative effects on production performance.

Demand for geotextile products is increasing, but still comprises only two per cent of the total volume of coir exports .

A large number of alternative end uses for coir based products may become feasible, for example, for the production of fibre reinforced composite materials, fibreboard and similar building materials (for example, for insulation).

Innovative product development and marketing requires concerted action by a number of different players in the production chain.

Coir pith

As a by-product of coir fibre extraction large quantities of pith are obtained, which have been accumulating at production sites over the years.

The extraction of one kg of fibre generates more than two kg of coir pith. Recently, however, the product has gained commercial interest as a substitute for peat moss in horticultural substrate cultivation.

Low susceptibility to biodegradation and a highly porous structure enables coir pith to absorb large volumes of water (more than 50 per cent by weight), which makes it highly suitable in a potting mixture.

For horticultural use, the product has to meet specific chemical and biological standards of pH, electrical conductivity and elemental composition.

Repression of sodium and potassium from the cation complex of the coir may be desirable for many sensitive horticultural products.

Technical information to describe microbial contamination and product safety is another concern for users.

Coir pith is supplied from many production areas (e.g. Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines and Indonesia), and the penetration of coir pith into markets for horticultural and garden substrates is gaining interest.

Economics

The economics of coir fibre production are based upon a multi-linked chain in which much of production is dependent on cheap and abundantly available manual labour. Because of socio-economic conditions prevailing at the village level, mechanising the fibre extraction plant may not be the most obvious way forward.

Mechanisation practices have to be introduced with sensitivity, that people are not put out-of work without providing any real alternatives for income earning in the community.

The situation is further complicated because there are few alternatives to manual work within local communities. Livelihoods have to remain sustainable for social well-being. There are neither simple nor appropriate technologies developed and applicable, nor those that can be easily adapted from other fibre industries.

Spinning, weaving and matting of coir employs large numbers of people in the south of India and Sri Lanka. At village level, home workers supply private enterprises with raw materials (such as yarns and mats) of varying quality for further treatment or trade. Increasing productivity is only of interest when market demand expands.

Investment in expensive equipment is not economically or practically viable as long as labour costs are low. However, traditional practices cannot remain entrenched in a constantly changing industrial sector and now with non-availability of labour.

As markets become more open, competition may be expected from other coconut producing areas where traditional industries and trade unions are not, for example, bound to maintain employment levels.

Investment in added value, for example, for materials currently considered waste, presents attractive options to the entrepreneur.

In areas where labour costs are higher, such as the Philippines, mechanized spinning has been successfully introduced. Eventually, more opportunities for employment, better wages, improved conditions of working and a better quality of life for coir industry workers may be achieved by increased use of mechanisation, and the higher productivity that this brings.

Eco-friendly and natural image

Prices and costs of production should be considered in context; in the context of international fibres industries developments in recent years and, importantly, within the context of the out-moded and ancient industrial production methods that characterise coir fibre and yarn production in the partner countries.

Not withstanding a reasonably buoyant market for these products in recent times, Sri Lanka has nor modernised its domestic industries, except a very few large scale enterprises.

Coir industries in Sri Lanka and India have a strong export orientation with the sale of traditionally made yarn, mats, matting, rugs and carpets. Since the mid-1970s, export markets have begun to decline because of severe competition from synthetic fibres.

A gradual recovery during the last decade can be due partly to increasing ecological awareness on the part of consumers in the industrial countries.

Besides superior performance for durable matting, a strong marketing argument for coir is its eco-friendly and natural image.

Exporters of dyed coir products, however, are confronted with banned dyestuffs and legislation in Europe (and especially in Germany) for ecologically safe products. Buyers of coir products insist that banned dyes not be used.

The more advanced private companies have the vision and funds to be able to invest in improved dyeing technology and waste water treatment system.

The many thousands of small scale producers are less fortunate. In order to explore and exploit the larger export markets for diversified coir products, environmentally safe technologies need to be developed and implemented by local producing industries.

It follows that special attention has to be given to the chemical processes of bleaching and dyeing involved with manufacturing, for the improvements in ecological performance of the products that are possible.

More efficient methods for processing and chemical recovery and wastewater treatment may be of interest to the scientist and technician, but also essential for industrial application.

Eco-labelling is one of the important issues for export market promotion, and will require the development of a recognized certifying institute.

The additional costs of the dyestuffs and the reduced brilliance of the dyed fibres hamper the introduction of preferential direct or reactive dyes, when compared to basic dyes.

The fastness of direct dyes is better but, for many applications, the durability of the products is not a marketing issue.

Marketing strategy

Since many of the coir exporting companies are relatively small- or medium-scale enterprises, access to up-to-date marketing information is strictly limited. This restricts their ability to keep abreast of changing market needs. Marketing is also hampered by the inability of the producer to meet the material needs of the larger markets. Most producers provide a wide range of different products, and sell these in relatively small numbers.

This contrasts with requirements of the larger conglomerate supermarkets in USA, Europe and elsewhere demanding relatively large quantities of a single item, with firm demands on quality and delivery to schedule for this item. An ‘exclusive’ product such as this may be marketed only once. However, if successful, further sales of a different (but similar) product are possible during the following year. Thus there is continuity in markets for the coir fibre producer, but for different products.

Supply

Access to a reliable and guaranteed supply of raw materials and products of high quality standard is a considerable threat to coir export markets. Further, the quality of fibre supplied can be mixed.

Meeting standards and delivery schedules required of buyers is important to ensure customer satisfaction.

Natural materials such as coir fibres, however, are rarely uniform and security of supply can be variable as unseasonable weather or the demands of competing markets may, for example, bring a measure of risk.

Promotional programs

For increasing exports, the publicity required for coir and coir products is an important marketing tool. Providing information and raising awareness on the part of the client, of the advantages of coir, for example, and its ecological performance, is challenging.

This requires considerable effort and investment.

However, marketing information to describe new and/or existing products is essential, and should address the ecological aspects involved in relation to, for example, renewable resources and humane production systems.

But ecological arguments notwithstanding, buyers will not be interested if prices are unattractive. Guaranteed supplies of high quality products should be emphasised.

Demands by the customer for design and shades of colour should be met, as required. Existing marketing and distribution systems, should be used to the full, with the cooperation of local commercial partners.

Road ahead

The current worldwide trend of increased industrial interest in renewable raw materials for technical applications should be explored further.

For example, this should encompass fibre composites for the automotive industry or for similar applications for building and construction.

The development of innovative technologies for plant fibre products for non-traditional uses has led to increased demand. Technical possibilities for the use and application for coir fibres have not been fully investigated.

Possibilities for the production of (non-bleached) paper pulp - which can be applied to paperboards for packaging - have been demonstrated and more work of this kind is needed, including more in-depth research on pulping technology.

The production of coir non-wovens for technical applications such as insulation materials, geo-textiles, laminates and (bio-) filters should be encouraged. The availability of non-woven fibre products (e.g. interlacing/needle punched mats) of qualifiable/known specification in sufficient quantity on the market, will lead to substantial opportunities for product diversification.

The market for coir geo-textiles for agricultural and horticultural application can be substantially expanded when product specifications can be given with confidence according to ISO and ASTM standards, and when the durability (e.g. resistance to bio-degradation) of the product is known with confidence.

Inorganic matrix composites such as fibre reinforced cement have been studied in several coconut producing countries with some commercial success, for example, in the Philippines.

Domestic industry in Sri Lanka would benefit from the introduction of a similar programme , following through with discrete industrial developments.

Improvements with the production technologies required for rubberised coir manufacture are needed. Promising markets for superior mattresses and upholstery made from rubberised coir could be exploited.

This would require the development of adapted production technologies that are capable of producing consistently high quality products, and with reduced environmental impact.

The development of technologies for producing a tufted coir yarn on rubber mats would be advantageous to coir producers, with considerable market opportunities available.

Greater use of coir pith for horticultural applications (for peat replacement) is also needed; again, with considerable commercial opportunities available. Such markets have been little explored.

The technical demands of mineral content and other relevant parameters have been established (e.g. the development of Dutch Horticultural Standards by RHP). Further, added value manufacturing is possible with producers adopting similar standards and encouraging manufacturers to produce to specification, with the certification of a product label attached.

The CRI should play an active role in developments of this kind, for example, with the establishment of certifying laboratory and ratification procedures.

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