Our impact, Their voices

Coconuts, commitment and changing circumstances

Coco chips are widely used by farmers and gardeners. The ILO’s LEED+ project works with the private sector and local communities in Sri Lanka to develop coco chips as a mutually beneficial business.

Feature | Sri Lanka | 07 December 2020
© ILO, © Diomari Madulara, © Manjunath Kiran/AFP

SRI LANKA (ILO News) – The sound of a coconut cracking open breaks the silence in Lavanya Nadaraja’s kitchen at her home in Mullaitivu, in the north of Sri Lanka.

Small, white flakes fall rapidly into a bowl as 39-year old Ms Nadaraja moves the broken half of a coconut along the blade of the scraper, preparing lunch. Not far away, her husband, 49-year-old Kidnan Nadaraja is feeding coconut husks through a cutting machine, breaking the husks down to small brown particles – coco chips.

With an estimated three billion coconuts produced in Sri Lanka annually, they are unsurprisingly a staple of local cuisine as well as a major export commodity. Coco chips are used by gardeners and in agriculture around the world and Mr Nadaraja recently became a supplier to TropiCoir Pvt Ltd., one of Sri Lanka’s leading exporters of coco substrates.

I never saw coconut husks as a source of income, I did not know anything about business, but was keen to learn."

Kidnan Nadaraja
“I never saw coconut husks as a source of income, I did not know anything about business, but was keen to learn,” says Mr Nadaraja as he separated the coconut husks by hand.

“We, a family of five, now manage our lives with the earnings from coco chips. My wife is a kindergarten teacher. Her salary helps too,” Mr Nadaraja adds.

Mr Nadaraja started his business in February this year when he was among eight participants selected to join the ILO’s LEED+ project’s work with Udayarkaddu Cooperative.

“TropiCoir initially provided us with a series of training courses, they also took us on exposure visits to the factory in Kurunegala, where I saw first-hand the scale of the whole operation, and also realised how I could grow with it. I put up the structure for the operation in my backyard, got my power supply sorted, and made other arrangements, using my own money. The machine was provided by TropiCoir and LEED+,” he says.

Business during the pandemic

Less than a month after Mr Nadaraja started his new business, COVID-19 hit Sri Lanka resulting in an island-wide curfew.

TropiCoir Pvt Ltd., temporarily halted exports, but assured suppliers that they would buy the coco chips as soon as the curfew was lifted.

“We were dependent on relief packages from the government and vegetables from our home garden. There was no income, but I didn’t stop my production,” says Mr Nadaraja.

When the curfew was lifted, Mr Nadaraja had two tons of coco chips available. Since July, the business has continued smoothly, apart from a few disruptions due to the pandemic.

Coconut coir is one of several value chains that LEED+ is working on, and through TropiCoir alone eight new businesses have been established. A key feature of all private sector partnerships facilitated by LEED+ is shared investment and shared responsibility, creating ownership and accountability from the onset among both the private sector company and the supplier.

While providing the new venture with vital support, in the long-term it builds a mutually beneficial relationship that benefits both the private sector company and the individual supplier, as well as pushes the sector forward. Meanwhile, by helping develop supply chains in the north, a region which lags in investment and business operations by large national players, new opportunities benefit local communities.

Our family is no longer in debt and we have started redeeming my wife’s jewellery that we had pawned."

Kidnan Nadaraja
As they break for lunch, Mr Nadaraja and his 20-year old son Jeevaraj, take stock of the day’s production. The northeast monsoons have brought with them daily showers, interrupting the drying of coco chips prior to packing them. The supply of coconut husk has also fallen recently, driving up prices.

However Mr Nadaraja is unfazed by these challenges and has big plans for the future, as he explains.

“Seeing my commitment, TropiCoir agreed to provide me with another machine, and I recently set-up operations in a second location where I employ four others. Our family is no longer in debt and we have started redeeming my wife’s jewellery that we had pawned. I want to expand even further, get a machine that produces not only coco chips, but also coir and coir dust. Things are looking better.”

Supported by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Government of Norway, the LEED+ project is part of the ILO’s Global Jobs for Peace and Resilience programme. At its very core, LEED+ is a quintessential ILO effort, given its ultimate aim of creating decent, inclusive and sustainable jobs, and ensuring the empowerment of conflict-affected communities in the process.