Ripening Opportunities

Jayanthi Dharmasena explains why agro-exports can be the greatest bounty

Can Sri Lanka compete with differentiation and value added exports of fruits and vegetables that focus on high value niche markets? Jayanthi Dharmasena maintains that this is possible.

“Except for crops such as tea, rubber, coconut and some spices, it is challenging to compete with regional players such as Thailand, India, Malaysia and the Philippines due to their scale that enables competitive pricing,” the veteran businesswoman explains. 

“Despite this, Sri Lanka has the potential to compete in value added avenues for fruit and vegetable commodities… However, this calls for innovative products supplied with quality and reliability,” she adds.

Regardless of the value chain shifts and disruptions of 2020, Dharmasena believes that opportunities for growth are on the cards for local agriculture exports.

She remarks: “In my view, some potential areas that are ripe opportunities include plant-based meat substitute products developed from tender jackfruit, mushroom, banana flowers; nutraceutical products and food supplements made from spices such as cinnamon and turmeric; other extracts for diabetic management; essential oils and distilled extracts.”

Among the myriad opportunities for expansion, Dharmasena also lists the export potential of enzymatic extracts from food processing industries, coconut oil fractions such as medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils, palmyra and kithul products as healthy sweeteners, kithul flour, and non-tobacco-based smoking products such as cinnamon cigars, betel leaves and areca nuts.

Asked about what strategies she believes will help revive, rebrand and revitalise Sri Lanka’s agri-exports, and limit the nation’s reliance on imports, Dharmasena argues that the main driver will be commercial scale cultivation with productivity and quality improvements in the final produce through knowledge dissemination, mechanisation and the application of technologies.

“Utilising high quality and high-yield planting materials, which could possibly be disease and drought resistant, will be key,” she asserts.

She continues: “This also requires the proper and timely application of new generation soil and crop-based fertilisers, with primary, secondary and micro nutrients supplemented by organic soil conditioners, precision nutrient and water application technologies, protected agriculture, and the use of agro-technologies such as netting and mulching to manage pests and weeds.”

According to Dharmasena, also essential is a combined effort to promote mechanising field preparation, field harvest management by way of machinery, and adhering to integrated pest management and good agriculture practices, with proper sanitary and phytosanitary practices such as field preparation, farm management, and pre-harvest and post-harvest practices.

“Establishing a land data bank with land use classifications related to soil detail, agro-ecology, climate history and utilisation, with crop and pest history to ensure optimised land allocation will prove fruitful,” she explains.

And she emphasises that “land planning based on the environment and crop suitability to enable crop zoning, and accurately segregate wildlife and forestry, is equally important.”

Dharmasena also stresses that uneconomical and unutilised land must be converted to export oriented cultivation with the introduction of ICT-based national level crop cultivation planning and monitoring systems, notwithstanding weather-based flood and drought assessments, and early warning systems, to ensure consistent year-round supply and reduce price fluctuations of food supplies.

“Lastly, provide incentives to build capacity, as well as strengthen logistics and infrastructure such as cold chain, agro-food processing industries and marketing networks like economic centres, and to set up accredited laboratories for testing and trialling purposes based on public-private producer partnerships,” she recommends.

With selected niche high end market segments in mind, Dharmasena asserts that it would be best for producers to enter into buyback or equity partnerships with partners in markets such as the US, Japan and Europe who will also assist with knowledge transfer and commit to marketing national exports.

Jayanthi Dharmasena is an Executive Director and the Head – Agriculture Sector of Hayleys – she was interviewed by Sandesh Bartlett.