Sri Lanka’s coconut export revolution

In recent times, Sri Lanka has been rethinking its approach to exports in response to global economic changes. It’s moving away from its traditional exports like tea and rubber and exploring new avenues to make the most of its rich agricultural resources.

Coconut: A Versatile Agricultural Resource

Among the main agricultural exports, coconut is one such resource that has numerous opportunities. Coconuts, deeply ingrained in Sri Lanka’s agricultural heritage, are now at the forefront of this transformation. These versatile fruits play a vital role, contributing approximately 12% to the nation’s overall agricultural output.

Abundance and Demand

Sri Lanka has an annual coconut crop of 2.8 to 3.2 billion nuts, according to CRI statistics. Yet, this abundance falls short of the annual requirement of 4.6 billion nuts, a demand driven by domestic consumption, coconut oil production, and exports.

Global Recognition in the Coconut Industry

On the global stage, Sri Lanka has gained recognition in the coconut industry, primarily through products like Desiccated Coconut (DC) and brown fiber. The nation’s DC stands out with its distinct white color and exquisite taste, securing Sri Lanka’s position as the fourth-largest exporter of kernel products worldwide. Additionally, Sri Lanka excels in brown fiber production, known for its exceptionally long and pristine strands, making it the world’s leading exporter in this category, even finding applications in the brush industry.

Embracing the Global Shift Towards Healthier Alternatives

However, the most remarkable aspect of this transformation is Sri Lanka’s shift from traditional exports to innovative and value-added coconut products. This transition underscores not only adaptability but also the immense potential that coconuts offer as a versatile and lucrative export commodity.

In an era where global preferences are shifting towards healthier, plant-based alternatives, coconut-based products, especially coconut milk, are experiencing an unprecedented surge in demand. Embracing this transformative wave allows Sri Lanka to maximise its abundant coconut resources and align perfectly with the evolving tastes and desires of global consumers.

The Booming Demand for Coconut Milk

In such a backdrop, the potential for export revenue from coconut milk is staggering. Sri Lanka could tap into international markets hungry for this creamy delight. Beyond its renown in culinary applications, Sri Lankan coconut milk, extracted by pressing grated fresh coconut kernel, has garnered global demand. It is available in various forms, including undiluted and diluted liquid versions, as well as skimmed and spray-dried powder forms.

Meeting the Needs of Health-Conscious Consumers

The production of coconut skimmed milk, obtained through centrifugal separation to remove fat, provides a high-quality protein source, ideal for various food products. This aligns with current global trends, such as vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free foods, contributing to the surge in popularity of coconut milk as a dairy milk substitute. Sri Lanka has capitalized on this opportunity by manufacturing and exporting a wide range of flavored and unflavored drinking coconut milk to the world. Sri Lankan coconut milk stands out in the world market due to its distinct white hue, unique aroma, and delectable flavor.

Steady Growth in Export Earnings

The demand for coconut milk, with its diverse culinary applications and growing popularity in global cuisines, is on the rise. Export earnings from coconut milk have steadily climbed, providing a ray of hope in an otherwise challenging economic landscape.

Efficiency Gains Through Industrialization

Traditional methods of extracting coconut milk involve grating the coconut kernel and manually squeezing the fresh meat to yield the milk. However, this age-old practice results in significant economic loss, with only 30 to 40 percent of the coconut’s potential value being realized compared to industrial methods.

Comparing domestic and industrial milk extraction, the disparities become glaringly evident. While domestic usage recovers only 15 to 20 percent of the coconut’s fat content, industrial methods boast a more efficient 30 to 35 percent recovery rate. The residue from domestic extraction often goes to waste, whereas in industrial settings, it’s repurposed or sold. Even coconut water, shells, and parings, which are discarded domestically, find productive use in industrial applications like activated carbon production and oil production.

Maximising Coconut Resources

Despite the shortfall of 1.4 to 1.6 billion coconuts, the nation still uses 1.8 billion coconuts domestically, primarily for culinary purposes. By reallocating a larger portion of this consumption for the production of industrial value-added products like coconut milk and coconut cream, Sri Lanka could harness its coconut resources more efficiently.

Multifaceted Benefits

The benefits of such a shift are multifaceted. Factories could supply high-quality, safe, and value-added products for domestic consumption, often additive-free and organic, mitigating health concerns. Sri Lanka could also bolster its foreign exchange reserves through improved exports of coconut-based products.

By reevaluating the role of coconuts in both its cultural and economic narrative, the nation can bridge the gap between abundance and scarcity, transforming its coconut resources into a source of prosperity and sustainability.

A Vision for Economic Growth

In 2019, Sri Lanka faced a local oil requirement of 140,000 metric tons, with a substantial portion being imported, equivalent to a staggering 840 million kilos of coconuts, or roughly 1.4 billion nuts. This substantial coconut resource was harnessed to produce 240 million kilos of coconut milk, valued at USD 480 million (approximately Rs. 91.2 billion).

This transformation from coconuts to coconut milk not only created a value addition of USD 126 million (around Rs. 24.5 billion) but also generated a net profit of Rs. 66.7 billion or USD 354 million. These statistics highlight the immense economic potential that Sri Lanka can unlock by maximising the use of its coconut resources, not only meeting local demands but also creating profitable opportunities through value addition.

Innovative Proposals for Economic Growth

To bolster Sri Lanka’s economy through its coconut kernel industry, a groundbreaking proposal has emerged: the implementation of a value-based rebate certificate system. Under this proposal, manufacturers of coconut kernel-based products would be granted tax quotas of Rs. 50 for importing coconut oil, with the allocation determined by their contribution to exports. This allocation could be based on the foreign revenue they bring into the country or the volume they export.

Efficient Resource Allocation

Consider an example of a revenue-based quota system, where one kilo of quota is granted for every $4 in foreign revenue generated. In this scenario, the total foreign exchange earnings from the coconut kernel industry amount to an impressive USD 350 million. Using the revenue-based quota system, this translates to an allocation of 87.5 million kilos, equivalent to 87,500 metric tons of coconut oil to be imported. This imported oil would be sufficient for approximately 700 million coconuts.

Innovative Solutions to the Coconut

Shortage Predicament

From a cost perspective, the government’s investment in this system would be approximately LKR 4,375 million (or USD 21.8 million). However, considering Sri Lanka’s existing coconut shortage for both domestic consumption and industrial usage, this strategy presents an innovative solution. It would alleviate the coconut shortage predicament and allow for the allocation of more coconuts to produce value-added coconut kernel products, consequently boosting the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

Economic Gains from Coconut Milk Production

By producing coconut milk from the 700 million allocated coconuts, this initiative could generate foreign revenue of USD 280 million. After deducting the initial government cost of USD 21.8 million, the net gain for the country would amount to USD 258.2 million. Simultaneously, the importation of fresh coconuts would bolster local coconut supplies, stabilizing prices for both farmers and consumers.

Addressing the Critical Deficit

The current expected foreign exchange revenue stands at an impressive $1.2 billion, with existing earnings from both kernel and non-kernel-based products at $400 million each. However, a critical $400 million deficit looms on the horizon.

Safeguarding Coconut Growers

To bridge this gap and secure a brighter future for Sri Lanka, the nation envisions importing fresh coconuts. These coconuts will be the raw materials for producing high-demand products like coconut milk, Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO), and Desiccated Coconut (DC). Each kilogram of coconut used in these processes promises significant foreign exchange gains, further enriching the nation’s coffers.

Preserving Local Coconut Farming Communities

This visionary proposal doesn’t just reflect economic ambition; it reflects a deep commitment to safeguarding local coconut growers. When coconut prices at the Colombo auction dip below the threshold of Rs. 65 per nut, imports can be judiciously curtailed. This safeguard is more than a mere economic maneuver; it’s a lifeline for local growers, preserving their livelihoods and maintaining a fair minimum price for their produce.

Ensuring Stable and Improved Income

Foremost among these advantages is the assurance of stable and improved income. Historically, coconut growers have grappled with the unpredictability of local coconut prices, which often fluctuate due to market dynamics. However, with the increase in coconut exports, demand for coconuts will rise, leading to higher and more stable prices for their produce. This means that coconut growers can look forward to a reliable source of income that not only sustains their livelihoods but elevates their economic well-being.

Coconut Exports in the Region: A Lesson in Economic Growth

Coconut exports in the region have been a significant driver of economic growth and stability for several countries, including Sri Lanka. Neighbouring nations such as Thailand and Indonesia have successfully leveraged their natural coconut resources to establish themselves as major players in the global coconut market.

Thailand, for instance, has become a leading exporter of coconut products such as coconut milk, coconut water, and coconut oil. The country’s coconut milk, known for its quality and taste, has gained popularity in international markets and is widely used in various cuisines. Thailand’s success in coconut exports has contributed to its economic growth and stability.

Indonesia, another regional powerhouse in coconut production, has also diversified its coconut exports. The country is a major exporter of products like coconut oil and desiccated coconut. Indonesia’s coconut oil, in particular, is in high demand globally, with applications in food, cosmetics, and industrial sectors.

Embracing Adaptability and

Pragmatism in Sri Lanka

These neighboring countries have not only bolstered their economies through coconut exports but have also made pragmatic choices like importing coconuts for domestic consumption. This strategic approach allows them to focus on producing high-value coconut-based products for the global market.

Coconut exports in the region, led by countries like Thailand and Indonesia, have demonstrated the economic potential of coconut-based products in the global market. Sri Lanka is following suit by diversifying its coconut exports, aligning with contemporary consumer preferences and global trends, and aiming for economic growth and sustainability.

Preserving Tradition and Promoting Sustainability

Sri Lanka, recognizing the success of its regional counterparts, is also shifting its focus towards coconut-based exports, particularly coconut milk. This shift reflects a broader change in mindset, emphasizing adaptability and pragmatism. By learning from its neighbors and maximizing the potential of coconut exports, Sri Lanka aims to unlock a future where coconuts are not wasted but celebrated as a valuable export commodity.

Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Economic Prosperity

Furthermore, the expansion of coconut exports safeguards the future of these farming communities. By creating a more lucrative market for coconuts, this initiative encourages the younger generation to embrace coconut farming as a viable profession. This not only preserves the traditional knowledge and practices of coconut cultivation but also injects fresh energy into the industry, ensuring its continuity for generations to come.

The ripple effects of this growth extend beyond financial gains. With increased income and market stability, coconut growers can invest in the modernization of their farms, adopting advanced farming techniques and technologies. This not only enhances productivity but also promotes sustainable and eco-friendly farming practices, aligning with global demands for responsible agriculture.

Coconut Milk: A Sustainable Future

These countries’ success in coconut milk exports reflects the increasing popularity of coconut-based products, driven by global trends favoring healthier and plant-based food alternatives. As consumers worldwide continue to seek coconut milk for its culinary and health benefits, the region’s coconut-producing nations are poised to play a crucial role in meeting this demand and expanding their export markets further. Coconut milk exports are not only economically beneficial but also align with the shift towards sustainable and plant-based food options, making them a significant part of the region’s agricultural exports.

Unlocking Economic Advantages Through Coconut Milk Exports

Exporting coconut milk holds significant economic advantages for Sri Lanka. This strategic shift from traditional exports like tea and rubber diversifies the country’s export portfolio, reducing reliance on a few commodities and spreading economic risk. The global demand for coconut milk is on the rise, thanks to its versatile use in various cuisines and as a dairy milk substitute, providing Sri Lanka with an opportunity to tap into a lucrative market.

Adding Value and Promoting Sustainability

Moreover, processing coconut milk adds value to raw coconuts, enabling higher pricing and profit margins. This value addition contributes to increased revenue, strengthens foreign exchange reserves, and fosters job creation along the coconut milk production chain. Importantly, it stabilizes coconut prices for farmers and consumers, ensuring fair returns for agricultural efforts. By adapting to global food trends favoring healthier and plant-based options, Sri Lanka’s coconut milk exports not only boost the economy but also promote sustainability in the country’s rich coconut industry.

Conclusion: A Prosperous Path Forward

Sri Lanka’s journey towards coconut-based exports, especially coconut milk, is a transformative and forward-thinking approach that capitalizes on the nation’s abundant coconut resources. It offers economic growth, stability, and sustainability while preserving the cultural and agricultural heritage of coconut farming. This strategic shift holds the promise of a brighter future, when coconuts will be a global export commodity driving prosperity and well-being.

By Randeewa Malalasooriya
Coconut Milk Manufacturers’ Association

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