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SRI LANKA: Spinning Livelihoods From Coir Fibre

Feizal Samath

HAMBANTOTA, Oct 30 2008 (IPS) - Sriyawathie wades into a murky, greenish pond in this coastal district and scoops out coconut husks that have been left in the water for retting before being dried and spun into coir rope, matting and brooms.

A coir worker beats the fibre out of retted coconut husks. Credit: J. Weerasekera/IPS

A coir worker beats the fibre out of retted coconut husks. Credit: J. Weerasekera/IPS

"This is how we do it," the smiling 55-year-old woman says. After the husks are retrieved from the water they are beaten until the tawny fibre emerges. The whole process can take four months.

The coir (coconut fibre) business, essentially a cottage industry that mostly employs women, is slowly recovering from the December 2004 tsunami which destroyed coir producing units along the coast. But they have had to compete against dozens of Sri Lankan companies which export high-quality coir products.

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the British OXFAM have stepped in to help revive these small businesses and help the women get back on their feet.

In July, in this southern town, 49 community-based organisations (CBOs) – formed out of 205 self-help groups – came together to form a federation to actively promote and support female coir workers as the owners and managers of the assets, resources and processes of this industry.

With financial and technical expertise from Oxfam, the federation looks to increase access to improved production techniques, high-quality raw material and more lucrative markets for coir workers. Coir industry workers like G.C. Kusumawathie say support from the CBO federation and Oxfam has helped her return to a normal routine.

Kusumawathie, whose beach coir pits were destroyed by the tsunami, now buys machine-made coir and weaves them into rope along with three other women. "We make an average Rs 4,000 (about four US dollars) a month per person," she says.

Their fishermen-husbands help out during the monsoon season when the seas are too rough for fishing and when coir spinning forms the only source of income for their families.

K.D. Daya Padmini, a community facilitator hired by Oxfam to work on the project, says the CBOs – each of which may have 60 to 100 members – run their own banking units. Each member deposits Rs 40 (around 40 US cents) per month and members are entitled to draw loans of up to Rs. 3,000 (27 dollars).

Himali Hemakeerthi, programme assistant with Oxfam, says the NGO provides cash grants to the women and, while this is used to improve the industry, the CBO loans are used for family needs. "Our project started after tsunami as the coir industry was in a deep crisis and many women had lost their livelihood," she added.

The CBO federation represents more than 200,000 coir-weavers and their families

Machine-made coir is not as attractive as the beach-pit coir where the waves are allowed to repeatedly wash away the brownish colour from the husks to yield clean, white coir.

While the women in cottage industries struggle to produce ropes, mats, brushes and brooms for local consumption, there are dozens of Sri Lankan companies that export high-quality fibre and coir products such as geotextiles, rubberised coir mattresses, and upholstery.

According to official statistics, Sri Lanka is the single largest supplier of brown coir fibre to the world market, and together with India accounts for almost 90 percent of global coir exports.

According to a 2006 study done by Colombo's National Institute of Business Management commissioned by Oxfam International, the coir industry here is characterised by a traditional, labour-intensive, largely female, white-fibre industry in the Western and Southern provinces and the more modernised, mechanised, export-oriented, brown-fibre industry in the North-Western province.

White fibre is harvested from the husks of green coconuts while the stiffer brown fibres are extracted from husks of mature nuts. An estimated 10 percent of fibre comes from traditional coir areas in the south, whereas 85 percent of the brown fibre mills are based in the North-Western and Western provinces.

Coir-related exports accounted for six percent of agricultural exports, over one percent of all exports, and 0.35 percent of GDP in Sri Lanka in 2005.

Anulawathie, one of the women, deftly ties two or three coconut husks together onto a stick to make a traditional broom. "This is for you," she says in a gesture of goodwill.

"They don't have any marketing skills,’’ explains Thushara Dharmasiri, an Oxfam official. ‘’The next level of development is to teach to sell their products themselves instead of relying on the middle-man," he said, adding that the brooms are picked up by middlemen at Rs 40 rupees (three cents) per piece and then sold at twice that price in the market.

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