Thursday, January 24, 2008

computer lessons

I was most pleased to note this week that in my local town, computer and English classes are offered free of charge to local kids at the Buddhist temple in Hingurakgoda. One of my neighbor's sons Aruna Sampath is one of them. It is him on my laptop two days ago, practising MS word. He started the course two months ago, and cycles to the classes after getting home from school and having a quick lunch.

Due to the immense competition for places for these courses, each school in the area has to select only a few students, and I discovered that the process of selection was not an aptitude test, but by just drawing a number, a lottery in other words.

After I spent an hour with this boy showing him a few things on the computer, the father of the boy came to me the next day, to thank me profusely for taking the time to show him how to navigate his way around. This father is a more a laborer than a farmer as he has less than an acre, and earns most of his income from husking coconuts for a local merchant. I learnt that this merchant determines the local coconut price, as he sets a price at which he buys and then he stocks in his large yard. He supplies the army camps in Minneriya, there are over a dozen of them. When orders come this man is hired to husk the coconuts.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Those who read this blog and for the most part who write Sri Lanka related blogs, are either unaware or feel it unnecessary to comment on daily mundane issues that affect the lives of 95% of the people living in Sri Lanka. I guess that's why they are not of interest as they are mundane!

I would go as far as to say that 50% of the average household expenses after housing costs, (rent or mortgage) comprise costs of the food basket.The average cost of the food basket has gone up 50% in the past three months, and is affecting the lives of many and is the talking point in the average home, more than the war or bombs etc.Ironically the only item that I am currently having a short supply and I cannot increase prices are of King Coconuts, my largest single revenue earner, where prices have remained the same for the past three years. I would add that this is one of the most nutritious refreshments one can drink and is the best value for money today.

For those unaware, these are the current prices of some of the products I sell in my shop. Coconuts 40/- Bottle of Fresh Milk 50/- Loaf of Bread 45/- a Kilo of Wheat Flour 75/- a kilo or Rosa Samba rice 70/- a 400g pack of Milk Powder 195/- a kilo of dhal (grown in Australia) 120/- a kilo of Potato 80/-a kilo of Sugar 68/-. The prices of fruit and vegetables are usually seasonal and go up and down due to supply and demand and sometimes vary dramatically. The price of Tomato dropped from 140/- a kilo to 40/- in the last month alone. Similar drops were seen for lime which is now in season.

I am a producer of food items, I also buy these items from others as I do not produce enough to supply my customers, and I also transport these food items, and then sell direct to customers in Colombo and in my small Kade to neighbors around Galdola Farm in Kirimetta, Godagama. Needless to say I am also a consumer, but in the latter category, I only have to feed myself.

The title is called coconuts as I want to illustrate some of the issues regarding the spike in price of coconuts recently. It has doubled in about 2 months and appears still to be on the up with no respite till April when yields will increase again. I can't find enough to stock my shop as they are snapped as quickly as a coconut is husked and brought.

The main reason is that historically this is the time the trees produce the least amount of nuts. One cannot store coconuts for long in a cost effective way. I can vouch for this as the yield has more than halved and in that sense, my total income from coconuts has fallen despite the price rise.There is also a pest that has attacked trees in the South where people have had to destroy them.

Those who climb coconut trees now only pluck 4 or 5 per tree due to the time of year and they charge 50/- to climb a tree resulting in a 10/- per nut plucking charge in some cases, when it is for a few trees. There are fewer coconut tree climbers, and this is affecting the climbing cost for my King Coconuts which I sell only at 12/-(15/- for home delivery) and retail between 20/- and 25/- in roadside kades in Colombo.

I have therefore had to search high and low for coconuts to stock my shop as it is a basic item that people look for in a food shop and today, I was able to secure some nuts from my neighbours at 35/- hardly profitable bearing in mind the cost of husking and transporting in order to sell them. I have to search for more nuts in Polonnaruwa where I can get them at a lower cost, but bear in mind I have to cover my transport cost in the total supplies I bring from there.

Other long term factors have been that more trees are cut to make way for home sites, and another phenomenon that I was just made aware of was the large scale stealing of coconuts from larger estates where owners are absent and those in authority are complicit. Much of these coconuts find their way to large markets like Colombo where it is easy to dispose of a lorry load of stolen coconuts for about 500,000/- yes five lakhs. Estate owners have cut their fertilizer schedules due to low incomes and inability to combat theft. Most people steal by plucking and filling one lorry load to live on for a few years!!! In a smaller way a person steals a few coconuts from a tree on my and others' property to feed their families, and in other cases, some people steal 10 nuts from one tree and that is a days wages in Sri Lanka, and so do that for a living.

Another factor is the increased price of fertilizer, a 50kg bag of Coconut fertilizer is Rs 2550 almost double last years subsidised price. So people are fertilizing less, resulting in yield decreases.

The Government has tried to ban the export of coconuts to the middle east but that is a short term and self defeating action as long standing trading relationships with exporters are cut with a moments notice and is bad for business.

Households do and of necessity cut down on the use of coconuts for cooking and possibly dilute their curries with water and extend the use of the coconut. Some shops are selling half coconuts as people cannot afford whole ones.

There is no obvious solution to the problem that I can see, and in the long term a multi pronged approach is needed.

I am noting these from experience and if others have different experiences, please comment and add to the debate.

Friday, January 18, 2008

citrus season

January 16th was my father's 80th birthday, instead of being in Colombo with him and other relatives, I spent most of the day visiting neighbors in the village of Ratmale (see so see what I could buy from them and also reserve for future purchases in the coming weeks.
As is always the case, I have no idea when I come what and how much I will leave with. So one household had green chillies, another had a fruit called Aatha, and then I went to visit the paddy field across a raging river where just a log thrown across suffices as the bridge. This was the field where I used to stay the night with the farmer two years ago, protecting his crop from rampaging wild elephants. This time he is alone, so he is up most of the night by a fire to keep him warm from the cold nights. When I slept there, I did not need a mosquito net as there were no mossies and I also recall having no problem sleeping in the bed made of long thin sticks and a mat over it.

As I was passing an acquaintance on a bicycle, I stopped and asked him if he had oranges, as I recall picking over 600 from a tree at his place once. He said he did have mature oranges and to go to his home, where his wife would accommodate us. After buying the mature ones, by first having to pluck them, we reserved the others for next time when they are mature, and then were told to go to his sister's not too far away to pluck from her trees which were not only mature but also ripe. We got a few hundred from that house where there were many fallen being over ripe.

At another house, an acquaintance said we could pick his limes next week and at another we asked for 50kg of lime. When we went to collect they had plucked 78kg. I just had to buy the lot as that is what is expected.Once when the villagers knew I was looking for lime, I got 500kg, I had to take the lot not to offend them, I could bathe in lime with that amount!! Then I knew to ask for a specific amount, now I know to ask for less than I need!!!

This whole process of collecting, and at each of their places being offered tea or orange, and making small talk is all part of the experience, but an expensive way to collect produce for sale per se.

Friday, January 11, 2008

i have been too busy to write

Since the last entry over ten days ago, I have had quite a tight schedule, doing different things meeting deadlines and meetings and social engagements. One notable event that gave me quite a sense of satisfaction and fun was entertaining a busload of my sister's friends to lunch last Saturday. A day of intermittent rain in Polonnaruwa.
We were able to knock up food grown on that land, which gave me a great sense of pleasure and pride. One couple hosted me in Jonesboro, Arkansas on a visit a few years ealier and I was able to repay in a small way their hospitality. Thanks Sarath and Enoka for coming.
As bites we provided, manioc or cassava chips uprooted in the morning. We also gave a mango achcharu from my mangoes and some of the excess was bagged and taken away too. The orange juice was from the oranges on my property, as fresh as anyone could provide.
Lunch included, my last season's rice from the property, thibbatu, bandakka, ma karal and pol sambol from the property and lake fish fried. To cap it all I could seat them all in my kitchen for the lunch.
I think they enjoyed the uncomfortable ride in the back of my pick up from the main road to the land as the bus could not make it.
I am sorry the weather was not conducive to bathe in the river before lunch, but we had a walk around the property after lunch to give a feel of what land here is like and what can and does grow. Alas the visit was short, but it gave me an idea that I should once a few improvements are made to infrastructure I could have people come to taste authentic village cooking on firewood and local utensils.
My staff were aghast at me for serving all dishes in the same pots used for cooking, but once the guests arrived and expressed their views, they came to look at things my way.Thank you all for coming and please feel free to come visit again.