Coconut coir fibre products’ vast potential untapped
The coir (coconut fibre) business in Sri Lanka that had been
essentially a cottage industry that mostly employs women, is slowly
recovering from the December 2004 tsunami which destroyed coir producing
units along the coast. But they have had to compete against dozens of
Sri Lankan companies which export high-quality coir products.
Coir husking in progress
Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the British OXFAM
have stepped in to help revive these small businesses and help women get
back on their feet.
Machine-made coir is not as attractive as the beach-pit coir where
the waves are allowed to repeatedly wash away the brownish colour from
the husks to yield clean, white coir.
While the women in cottage industries struggle to produce ropes,
mats, brushes and brooms for local consumption, there are dozens of Sri
Lankan companies that export high-quality fibre and coir products such
as geotextiles, rubberised coir mattresses, and upholstery.
According to official statistics, Sri Lanka is the single largest
supplier of brown coir fibre to the world market, and together with
India accounts for almost 90 percent of global coir exports.
According to a 2006 study done by the National Institute of Business
Management (NIBM) commissioned by Oxfam International, the coir industry
here is characterised by a traditional, labour-intensive, largely
female, white-fibre industry in the Western and Southern provinces and
the more modernised, mechanised, export-oriented brown-fibre industry in
the North-Western province.
White fibre is harvested from the husks of green coconuts while the
stiffer brown fibres are extracted from husks of mature nuts. An
estimated 10 percent of fibre comes from traditional coir areas in the
south, whereas 85 percent of the brown fibre mills are based in the
North-Western and Western provinces.
Coir-related exports accounted for six percent of agricultural
exports, over one percent of all exports, and 0.35 percent of GDP in Sri
Lanka in 2009.
Coir fibre is obtained from husk of coconut and composed of highly
lignified form of cellulose. All coir fibre falls into two distinctly
different categories viz. white coir and brown coir. The differences
between two categories are due to the conditions of husk used, the
method of extraction, the physical properties as well as in the uses.
Coir fibre is obtained from the outer layer of the fruit of coconut
tree (Cocos Nucifera L). This outer layer is called the coconut husk and
this husk (exocarp) of the coconut consists of a smooth waterproof outer
skin (epicarp) and fibrous zone (mesocarp).
The mesocarp comprises strands of fibro-vascular bundles of coir
embedded in a non fibrous paranchymatous “corky” connective tissue
usually referred to as pith; which ultimately becomes coir dust.
Chemically coir fibre is composed of a highly lignified form of
cellulose (cellulose lignin complex), which accounts for its colour,
harshness and relative brittleness in comparison with the pure cellulose
fibre. The bulk of the ground tissue of the husk, on the other hand, is
made up of pectin and hemicelluloses i.e. pectin and hemi cellulose act
as a spongy binding material that bind the large fibre cells together to
make up the husk.
Coconut coir is in great demand unaccounted of natural resilience,
durability, resistance to dampness and other functional properties. The
chemical composition and physical properties of coir fibre is presented
Success story of India
Indian coir industry is an important cottage industry contributing
significantly to the economy of the major coconut growing states and
union territories, i.e., Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka,
Maharashtra, Goa, Orissa, Assam, Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep and
Pondicherry. About 5.5 lakh persons get employment, mostly part time, in
this industry. The exports from this industry are around Rs. 70 crores.
Coconut husk is the basic raw material for coir products and around 50
per cent of the available coir husk is used to produce coir products.
Hence, there is huge scope for growth of coir industry.
During the Seventh Plan period, encouragement has been given for
expansion of home market through publicity and advertisement, product
diversification, adoption of new technology, research and development,
training for artisans, including women and social welfare measures for
coir workers, most of whom are SC/ST and women.
The Eighth Plan programmes for coir industry aimed at increased
utilization of coconut husk for production of coir fibre, growth of the
domestic market, strengthening of research and development to find out
new uses of coir fibre especially in the areas of geo-fibre, fire
retardant, cement and gypsum polymer development, acquiring of new
technology like PVC-tufted coir products, encouragement to
cooperativisation and providing social welfare, civic amenities and
medical facilities to coir workers.
Emphasis was laid on mechanisation in a phased manner without
affecting employment to make Indian coir products competitive in the
export market. Modernization of coir units has been envisaged by
providing incentives for installation of modern equipments to make coir
industry more competitive in the export market.
Special training programmes have been formulated for women artisans.
Improved modern treadle ratts were provided to trained women artisans to
increase employment and earnings. Medical facilities, creche for
children of coir workers, model coir villages for SC/ST coir workers and
social welfare schemes implemented during the Eighth Plan period.
Emphasis has been given on developing devices/equipment/machinery
through R&D to reduce drudgery and to improve productivity of coir
Development of improved variety of ratts and looms would help in
improving the production of coir yarn spinning and coir mets.
In order to boost exports, the scheme of cooperative publicity/programme
in the export markets, which was started inú the Seventh Plan was
India accounts for more than two-thirds of the world production of
coir and coir products. Kerala is the home of Indian coir industry,
particularly white fibre, accounting for 61 per cent of coconut
production and over 85 per cent of coir products.
Although India has a long coastline dotted with coconut palms, growth
of coir industry in other coastal states has been insignificant.
Types of Coir Fibre
All coir fibre falls into two distinctly different categories, white
coir and brown coir.
The differences are due to the conditions of husk used, the method of
extraction and the physical properties as well as in the uses. Coir
obtained from immature green coconut is generally known as white fibre
and is finer than the brown fibre obtained from seasoned coconuts, which
has lost their green color (12 months). Both types of fibre are widely
used and each has its own unique distinct type of application.
The fibrous husks are soaked in pits or in nets in a slow moving body
of water to swell and soften the fibres. The long bristle fibres are
separated from the shorter mattress fibres underneath the skin of the
nut, a process known as wet-milling.
The mattress fibres are sifted to remove dirt and other rubbish,
dried in the sun and packed into bales. Some mattress fibre is allowed
to retain more moisture so that it retains its elasticity for ‘twisted’
fibre production. The coir fibre is elastic enough to twist without
breaking and it holds a curl as though permanently waved.
Twisting is done by simply making a rope of the hank of fibre and
twisting it using a machine or by hand. The longer bristle fibre is
washed in clean water and then dried before being tied into bundles or
hunks. It may then be cleaned and ‘hackled’ by steel combs to straighten
the fibres and remove any shorter fibre pieces. Coir bristle fibre can
also be bleached and dyed to obtain hanks of different colors.
The immature husks are suspended in a river or water-filled pit for
up to ten months. During this time micro-organisms break down the plant
tissues surrounding the fibres to loosen them - a process known as
Segments of the husk are then beaten by hand to separate out the long
fibres which are subsequently dried and cleaned. Cleaned fibre is ready
for spinning into yarn using a simple one-handed system or a spinning
Coir Processing Fibre extraction
The effectiveness of the wet processes such as bleaching and dyeing
of coir, are strongly dependent on the procedures used to extract fibres
from the husks and the pretreatment given the fibres. Both state-of-the
art and commonly used technologies for fibre extraction are described
Traditional fibre extraction
The traditional production of fibres from the husks is a laborious
and time-consuming process. This is highly polluting of surface waters
and results in the accumulation of large dumps of pith. After manual
separation of the nut from the husk, the husks are processed by various
retting techniques, and generally in ponds of brackish waters (for three
to six months) or in salt backwaters or lagoons.
This requires 10-12 months of anaerobic (bacterial) fermentation. By
retting the fibres they are softened and can be decorticated and
extracted by beating, which is usually done by hand. After hackling,
washing and drying (in the shade) the fibres are loosened manually and
cleaned. The fibre thus obtained is of highest quality and can be used
for spinning and weaving purposes. Retted fibres from green husks are
most suitable fibres for dyeing and bleaching. For the production of
more coarse brown yarns, shorter periods of retting may be applied. Yarn
thus obtained can be used extensively in geotextile. Alternatively,
mechanical process can be applied by using either defibering or
decorticating equipment to process the husks which require only five
days of immersion in water tanks.
Crushing the husk in a breaker opens the fibres. By using revolving
“drums” the coarse long fibres are separated from the short woody parts
and the pith. The stronger fibres are washed, cleaned, dried, hackled
and combed. The quality of the fibre is greatly affected by these
Green decortications and enzyme treatments
New environmentally friendly methods of fibre production are of
interest. These can be locally exploited on relative small-scale, and
have the potential to produce a more constant quality of fibres. Novel
developments by the Central Coir Research Institute (CCRI), Kalavoor
using a biotechnological approach with specific microbial enzymes, for
example, have substantially reduced the retting time from three to five
High quality fibre production has been maintained. Similar protocols
can be developed to enhance the properties of the fibres with regard to
surface properties such as smoothness and porosity. By using specific
(microbial) lignolytic enzymes (Laccase/phenoloxidasel, the fibre
surface can be bleached (or activated to react more easily with the
dyes). Similar technology has been developed by NOVO-Nordisk to reduce
the amounts of chemicals required to produce wood chips or fibreboard.
Application of Coir Fibre
Coir Fibre is biodegradable, eco-friendly and has got excellent
chemical and physical properties, which makes it suitable for
multifarious applications. Due to these peculiar characteristics, it has
got broad applications in various fields including agriculture and soil
Coir Yarn is generally of 2 ply, spun from coir fibre by hand as well
as with the help of spinning machines or traditional ratts. The Coir
yarn is of different grades based on the quality of fibre used, the
nature of twist, presence of Impurities etc. and is available in
different forms like pressed bales, spools, etc. for various industrial
and agricultural applications.
Coir mats are made on handlooms, power looms and with or without
brush. Fibre mats, Creel mats, Rod mats, Carnatic mats are the different
types of mats commonly manufactured. Fibre Mats are known for its
compact brush, Creel mats for thin brush and Rod mats for thick brush.
Coir mats are available with woven or stenciled designs for use as
doormats. Latex backing is done to make non-slip mats.
Coir Mattings are made on traditional hand looms or powerlooms and is
available in a number of designs and patterns made by weave and color
combinations. It is mainly used as floor coverings and floor runners for
furnishing corridors and also used for ceiling and wall paneling.
Coir geotextile is bio-degradable and eco-friendly and is the natural
solution to large scale soil erosion and soil degradation. Coir
geotextiles have very high tensiIe strength, water absorption
capabilities and ability to break up run off top soil. Coir retains
moisture for long time and it also promotes new vegetation by absorbing
water and by preventing the topsoil from drying out.
Coir geotextile provides soil support for four to five years for
natural vegetation to establish. It is also used for river bank
protection, road construction and land reclamation. Coir mesh mattings,
Coir needle felts and Coco logs are the major kinds of Geotextiles.
Pith is the material that binds the coconut fibre in the husk. So far
considered as a problematic waste, Coir Pith also called Coco-peat, has
now acquired high demand for its use as a soil conditioner and plant
nutrient and an effective medium for plant growth.
It is an effective soil conditioner and is commonly used as sans-soil
medium for growing plants and used as a substitute for Peat Moss.
Pith can hold 8 to 10 times water by weight and is used as potting
mixture in plant nursery to save on water, which is one of the major
costs in the nursery. Coir pith enhances the nutrient carrying capacity
of plants and it is ideal for growing anthuriums and orchids due to its
moisture retention properties.
Coir pith can be converted into organic manure (C-pom) by a simple
technology developed by the Coir Board Coir pith serves as an
environmental and high organic carbon source for the maintenance of
organic matter contents of the soil and finds ample applications in
All most all the products required for gardening can be made out of
Coir fibre. Coco pot, poles, hanging baskets etc are commonly used in
gardening, replacing plastics which is causing lot of environmental
problems. Coconut husk chips are also widely used in horticultural
Coir composites are now being extensively used as a wood substitute
due to its high specific strength, stiffness and durability. Coir
composites are ecofriendly, termite resistance and also cost-effective.
Coir composites are used for making roofing sheets, furniture, trays,
doors. Windows, packing base etc.
Coir fibre, only a by-product of coconut, is now in great demand,
particularly, from China. Here in Sri Lanka, though the average annual
coconut crop is around three billion nuts, the coir production is only
around 80,000 tonnes and out of it around 70,000 tonnes are exported.
Vietnam, a newcomer to the market, with only 0.7 billion nuts, exports
today around 114,000 tonnes of coir fibre.
Sri Lanka is unable to seize the opportunity, as only 25 percent of
the coconut husks available in the country are utilized to produce coir
and the balance of nearly 75 percent goes waste. The income earned by
fibre exports is at Rs 6.4 billion and if the total potential is
exploited the country would be rich by around another Rs 20 billion.
Out of the total coconut products exported fibre constitute the
highest being 44 percent while DC is the second highest 24 percent. To
turn around this situation, the stakeholders involved in the coir
industry need to relentlessly work to extract the full potential of the
coir fibre. It is commendable that the Ceylon Coir Fibre Exporters’
Association (CCFEA) affiliated to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is now
in the forefront in these activities.
(The writer is a Director of MAT POL (PVT) Ltd, a BOI company, who
are manufacturers and exporters of coir products to Fibre Dust PLC of