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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Saturday, May 14, 2005

ITI scientists impart dynamism to the Kithul industry

The Island: 13/05/2005"

Scientists of the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) have been successful in imparting dynamism to the Kithul industry in Sri Lanka so as to meet the upcoming challenges of both the local and export markets. The Institute was initially contracted by the Ministry of Rural Economy in the year 2003 with a grant of approximately Rs. 3Mn to uplift the Kithul industry in the country, which remained very traditional even though having many prospects for improvement

Kithul, Caryota urens also known as Fish tail palm or Toddy palm, is an indigenous plant, naturally growing in the wild, in forest covers and home gardens in Sri Lanka. The tree has an age-old cottage industry built through generations. In ancient Ceylon, during the time of the Kings, there were many villages totally dependent on Kithul treacle, jaggery and toddy for their livelihood with these products made from the sugary sweet sap obtained by tapping the young Kithul inflorescence according to traditional practices. This traditional knowledge was a highly guarded and much valued secret, kept within families and handed down from generation to generation with the techniques being unmatched and not practiced in any other country in the region, although the palm grows in the Asian tropics.

Sri Lankans can therefore, be justifiably proud of the wisdom and skill displayed by our ancestors, and efforts have to be made to preserve this traditional knowledge, while simultaneously manufacturing products for today’s markets. Kithul products have a high demand due to its uniqueness in taste, aroma and traditional claims on the health benefits, However, due to the scarcity in production coupled with the high demand, the products are a highly priced commodity. Many families in rural Sri Lanka still rely solely on the Kithul palm for their livelihood through the income obtained by the sale of Kithul treacle and jaggery with a monthly income of about Rs.10, 000/- being possible from a healthy tree.

However, during the last several years, this one time flourishing rural industry, was dying and if this was allowed to happen, the ancient knowledge handed down by our ancestors would be lost forever. An immediate scientific intervention was thus an urgent need and with this foresight, ITI obtained financial support from the Ministry of Rural Economy in the year 2003 and the ITI scientists embarked on an ambitious plan to study the tapping process employed in villages and develop a scientific background to increase the quality and quantity of sap, identify high yielding varieties and also for setting up pilot plant scale processing units to produce quality Kithul products.

The ITI studies commenced with prolonged visits to the villages for a scientific evaluation of the traditional tapping techniques. Within the 1st three months the ITI successfully documented all the traditional practices including the associated rituals as well as the treatment mixtures used to induce continuous sap secretion from the inflorescences. The data relating to the sap yield and the success rate in tapping when analyzed provided possible reasons for the decline of the industry. Some of the significant reasons being that the traditional tapping techniques, allowed only for successful tapping of 20-30% of trees with the others remaining untapped, only certain tappers were able to effectively tap the trees and also the treatment mixtures used to treat inflorescences differed from tapper to tapper. This resulted in inconsistent sap yields and had the corollary of some tappers resorting to unorthodox practices during tapping as well as adulteration of treacle and jaggery with cane sugar during processing, when low yields were obtained.

Through these studies, the ITI research team was able to provide sufficient evidence to prove that the quality and quantity of sap were mainly dependent upon the treatment mixture applied to the inflorescence to induce sap secretion as well as the tapping method practiced. This on site ITI study of the Kithul industry consequently also brought to light many problems which needed immediate attention. One priority for action was the development of a field test kit to detect adulteration of the sap, treacle and jaggery with cane sugar. Yet another area that needed urgent attention was the formulation of quality standards for the products for trading in both local and export markets.

The ITI project team subsequently developed a treatment mixture from common food additives to induce continuous sap secretion from the inflorescence as well as streamline the pre-preparation procedure for the inflorescence. The development of this innovative treatment was based on the traditional know-how acquired from the villagers, coupled with a scientific knowledge of the process, which induced continuous sap secretion. Using the developed techniques, the ITI has been successful in bringing about a 2-3-fold increase in sap yield, and a success rate of 80-90% in the tapping process. Standards have also been formulated for Kithul treacle and jaggery and a field test kit developed to detect adulteration of the products with cane sugar.

Through the work carried out so far, the ITI is confident that the near collapse of the Kithul industry has been arrested to a great extent. Through field demonstrations, and technology transfer workshops organized for those in the industry, it has been possible to disseminate these findings to a great extent, although much more needs to be done to transfer this technology further. The work carried out at ITI has gained much recognition by the Ministry of Small and Rural Industries who has now contracted the ITI to transfer the technology and set up processing centers by the end of the year 2005, in 14 Kithul Villages that are expected to be set up within the purviews of the 1000 industries program of the Ministry. All indications are that with the intervention of ITI, the overall productivity of the industry could be increased by about 800-900%. In anticipation of successful outcomes, the Export Development Board of Sri Lanka (EDB) is already laying down export strategies for Kithul products and the Sri Lanka Standard Institution (SLSI) has established committees to formulate internationally recognized standards for Kithul Products.

New momentum has gathered among villagers with the new findings being published in the national press and the ITI is now inundated with letters and telephone calls with requests for transfer of the know-how with the techniques developed by the ITI project team being available to all interested persons. More funding is presently being sought by the ITI to overcome some of the logistical problems that will be associated with the transfer as well as for setting up field nurseries of high yielding plants for distribution to growers.

All present indications are that the Kithul industry is slowly but steadily picking up and associated with this, improvements in the living standards of those involved in the industry have been observed. In economic terms, a significant share of GDP can be expected from the Kithul sector within the year 2006 with the added bonus of being in a position to transfer the new technology to other Kithul growing countries.

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