Our impact, their stories

Making a new wave

The growing demand for sea cucumber has paid dividends for Rasakulam and his community, but this burgeoning industry wouldn’t be where it is without some backing.

Feature | Sri Lanka | 30 June 2021

The coastal village of Pallikuda lies 40 kilometers northwest of Kilinochchi, in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. While it may seem similar to numerous other coastal hamlets dotted along the shoreline of Sri Lanka, there is something quite novel at work adjoining its shores. Pallikuda is home to a fishing community that are making a new wave through an unconventional enterprise: sea cucumber farming.
One of the key catalysts behind the transformation of his community is Navaratnam Rasakulam. A fisherman turned sea cucumber farmer, Rasakulam points out “Five years ago, there was only one farm, and that was mine, but now, there are 32 farms. Sea cucumber farming has helped our community a lot.

” With no domestic demand for the innocuous, leathery-skinned marine animal many did not see its potential, but Rasakulam’s entrepreneurial spirit meant he approached it otherwise, “Though a fisherman by trade, since a very age young, I have been interested in the sea cucumber business. I started slowly by collecting them, boiling them, and selling it to a company in Jaffna.”

Navaratnam Rasakulam is among the pioneers of sea cucumber farming
in the village of Pallikuda. © ILO
Today, Rasakulam’s farm spans 10 acres and is a few hundred meters off the shore. Despite the distance, the seabed is only around a meter deep and is covered in seagrass, amongst which hundreds of sea cucumbers of different sizes and varieties lie seemingly motionless. All Rasakulam has to do is pick the matured ones.

“Every year, I sell around 40,000 sea cucumbers the price can vary from Rs. 150 for a small one, going all the way up to Rs. 2,500 for a large one, or even around Rs. 3,500 for one of the uncommon types. Business is very good, says Rasakulam with pride. The growing demand for sea cucumber has paid dividends for Rasakulam and his community, but this burgeoning industry wouldn’t be where it is without some backing.

“In the recent past, we have researched into the sea cucumber industry as an avenue to generate foreign exchange to Sri Lanka, and have been working with communities and investors to promote the culture of sea cucumber farming, especially in the Kilinochchi and Jaffna areas,” says Nirooparaj Balachandran, Assistant Director of the Northern Province Coastal Aquaculture Extension and Monitoring Unit of the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA).

“Our research shows that farming is the easiest, most lucrative, and more importantly, sustainable way of supporting an industry because wild sea cucumbers have been over exploited. Hatchery based artificial breeding is the most environmentally sustainable technique of raising sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers play an important role in the marine ecosystem, and it is our priority to ensure wild populations are protected by all means,” he adds.

Rasakulam dries sea cucumbers assisted by his father. © ILO
ILO’s LEED+ Project has been at the forefront of the efforts to promote sustainable sea cucumber farming among these coastal communities. “Changing attitudes of the fishing community wasn’t easy. ILO’s support really helped shift people’s mindsets. The numerous model farms and nurseries they set-up in Pallikuda showed people that it wasn’t difficult to do sea cucumber farming, and that even vulnerable people like female heads of household and differently abled people could easily be employed in the farming process. The ILO also familiarized farmers with the practice of rearing hatchery bred juveniles through many training programs,” Nirooparaj explains.

For Rasakulam, the ILO’s support has been a source of strength for his business. “We used to have sea cucumbers only for 6 months of the year. But the ILO helped us with getting juvenile sea cucumbers from the Gui Lian company, so now we can have them year-round.”

Steven Gong, a representative of Gui Lian, elaborates how their hatchery has helped spur a thriving and sustainable industry. “We were pioneers of mass producing juvenile sea cucumber in our hatcheries and we supply our hatchlings to farmers like Rasakulam. Our sea cucumbers are grown using an eco-friendly, artificial spawning technique we have developed and it has helped farmers grow their business without harming the natural sea cucumber population.”
A part of Rasakulam’s 10 acre sea cucumber farm is an isolated nursery for hatchlings, every year he sells approximately 40,000 sea cucumbers . © ILO
A part of Rasakulam’s farm is a designated as a nursery where he isolates the hatchlings and lets them grow amidst the seagrass beds. In a few months, they will reach their full size and will be ready to be processed and shipped to markets in East and Southeast Asia. The operation is not without any risks. Rasakulam speaks of the challenges, “Farming is not very hard because sea cucumber doesn’t have any threat from other animals, they don’t move much and you can easily collect them. The biggest threat is from people who try to steal them. For this, I have 4 employees for security, they take turns in pairs, staying in the small hamlets on stilts located in the sea. During some months I also spend days at the farm.

” Rasakulam’s success is just one in story from an industry that is beginning to make strides, earning an export revenue of more than 1.8 billion rupees in foreign revenue for Sri Lanka in 2020, Nirooparaj points out. “The start of sea cucumber farming can be traced back to around 2006/07, but a licensing procedure was only established in 2015/16. Since then, more than 190 sea cucumber farms have been operating,”

By giving farmers resources such as fishing nets, technical insights, access to new markets, and relief assistance during times of emergencies, the ILO has played an instrumental role in setting a strong support system for the development of sea cucumber farming in the North. Rasakulam too has received a helping hand in the time of need. “When we faced the cyclone ‘Burevi’ in December 2020, the ILO helped us with rebuilding our farms. They also gave us fishing nets to replace our nets that were lost or destroyed.”

Today many families like Rasakulam’s are able to look forward to their future with confidence because of a stable livelihood through sea cucumber farming. © ILO
Rasakulam is grateful and happy. Today he and his family are reaping the benefits of being pioneers of a new wave. “Thanks to the ILO and NAQDA I have been able to build a sustainable and successful business. I am hoping to open a factory in the future that will give employment to more than 300 people. It makes me happy that my journey has been successful, and I am also very happy for everyone who has looked at us and made progress in their business.”

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.