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Coir - a fibre for the future?

Coir spinners are a vital link in the value chain (USAID)
Coir spinners are a vital link in the value chain

Coconut palms epitomise the shoreline and much of the interior lowlands of Sri Lanka, the nuts providing milk, meat and coir fibre, the trunks and leaves essential building and roofing materials. Coir exports alone were valued at just under US$100 million in 2008, making Sri Lanka the second largest exporter. However, India typically generates more revenue from less production by exporting higher value coir products. TCP, a project funded by USAID, has therefore been working in Sri Lanka since 2001 to improve the quality and efficiency of coir production, as well as preserving the many cottage industries involved by unifying the entire value chain, researching and developing new technologies and providing training.

Piyawathi De Silva is typical of the women who are dependent on coir, the coarse fibre extracted from coconut husks and spun into yarn and rope. Made locally from wood and bicycle rims, the hand-turned spinning wheels are usually operated by three women, each earning about US$1 a day. But on 26th December 2004 she, like many others, lost her livelihood when her spinning wheel was swept away by the Tsunami. However, just a few weeks later, she was back at work thanks to The Competitiveness Program (TCP) which provided 500 spinning-wheels and a 25 kilogram bale of coir to those Sri Lankan women who had lost their possessions, reviving the livelihoods of weavers and restoring a vital link in the value chain of coir production.

Working in partnership

The Coir Council International (CCI) has been the umbrella association of the coir industry since 2003, bringing together growers, millers, manufacturers and exporters, and including representatives from the Ministry of Industries and the Coconut Development Authority (CDA). The aim of the Council is to improve the competitiveness of the coir industry by developing coir fibre standards, developing the skills of the workforce, researching and adopting new technologies, disseminating market information and effectively representing the industry.

The CCI is working to improve the quality and quantity of raw coir fibre (USAID)
The CCI is working to improve the quality and quantity of raw coir fibre

The global market for coir fibre is well developed and there is good demand, but because the fibre is produced on a small scale, mostly using low-tech methods, there is little control over the quality and quantity of the raw fibre. According to Zahra Cader, Program Specialist for coir with TCP, "The value chain is very much dependent on the small players, therefore the relationship between them and big companies is vital."

Working in partnership, the CCI and CDA have jointly implemented projects and addressed policy issues. One joint initiative is the setting of standards for coir fibre, which are currently now in place and awaiting approval by the Sri Lanka Standards Institute. Cader explains that quality can vary depending on the end-use of the coir fibre but that high standards are important in retaining markets, particularly in the EU and US, due to stringent quality requirements. "The real issue is that currently there is very little price differentiation between the different qualities," Cader explains. "How much more you get for the product will be something that eventually evolves with the implementation of standards."

Pursuing quality

Currently, 500 small fibre mills, 150 weaving loom companies and over 3,000 families are engaged in spinning coir fibre as part of the value chain. TCP assistance has therefore been focused on preserving these cottage industries. For example, most spinners are paid per kilogram, so increasing productivity directly increases income. As electricity reaches more rural areas, CCI is encouraging the use of motorized spinning-wheels which, with only two workers, could produce greater amounts of better quality yarn, more than doubling earnings.

In addition to traditional coir products such as matting, upholstery, brooms and brushes, new products, such as geo-textiles are being promoted; these are used to control land erosion and in road construction. CCI, in conjunction with the Ministry of Industries has therefore been developing loom technology to enable manufacturers to produce quality woven coir netting that meets the international standard width of two metres. A motorised wooden loom, which could be used in a cottage setting, was tested in 2008, and students at the University of Moratuwa are continuing with the development of the new machines.

A research, development and training centre was also established in 2008 in order to research and demonstrate new technologies to improve productivity that can be adopted by the small coir mills. "The aim is to adapt the system to improve performance," Cader explained. For example, by promoting better machine management, the centre can make energy savings of 20 per cent. Drying coir fibre has been one of the major bottlenecks in the industry, so the centre has also been comparing drying methods in order to cut drying times. In addition, 53 coir millers and managers have been given training on entrepreneurship, marketing, and production.

The centre is also promoting safer technologies. Due to the feeding mechanism, the traditional method of extracting coir using a drum presents safety issues. Therefore improved decorticators are becoming more popular because, unlike the coir-drum process, they are safer, less cumbersome and can process fresh husks.

Looking ahead

Finished coir products provide an important source of income for the many cottage industries involved (USAID)
Finished coir products provide an important source of income for the many cottage industries involved

The future success of the coir industry depends on improving quality and productivity, developing value-added products, and breaking into new markets; for all this, cooperation is vital. A contract-based system between the large producers and exporters and the small-scale fibre producers is one element that needs improvement, according to Cader, as is the improvement of standards to ensure a plentiful supply of high quality fibre for value-added products. "Practically, implementing the standards will be a big challenge," Cader admits, "but a quality-based pricing system should address this." So, while recognising the progress made so far, further improvements are needed to enhance the organisation and unification of the value chain.

Date published: May 2009


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Coir products are available in these kinds of coir products,... (posted by: Coir Fibre Exporters)


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