Surviving in a post-pandemic world requires self-reliance – Janaka Perera

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the economies of many countries. In Sri Lanka, lockdowns and restrictions on movement have shut 90 percent of industries and severely affected the supply chain. This will eventually transform into huge losses when the restrictions are eventually removed.

All this has compelled us to focus on self-reliance as never before, as well as the revival of local industries to the maximal possible extent. The government has already accepted that this should run in parallel with controlling the outflow of foreign exchange and imposing import restrictions.

Some local industries, which started up in the 1960s, didn’t receive any state support after 1977. Instead, the country was encouraged to rely on imports. Many state owned industries that began under the United Front government (1970-77) were sold for a song while privately owned enterprises met a natural death.

The most regrettable outcome of this neglect was the fate of the state owned Kantale sugar factory. It provided employment for nearly 40,000 people in the Trincomalee District up to the 1980s; and at one time, its production exceeded the country’s sugar requirements.

Today, tractors, trucks, bowsers and machinery worth millions of rupees lie abandoned, unusable and rusting in the factory premises.

In the pre-1977 era, most of our textile requirements, paper and even bus chassis were manufactured in Sri Lanka although there were some shortcomings in the process. However, a government alone can’t revive these industries; organisations concerned with the nation’s progress and the public need to lend a hand, by using local products and services.

For instance, handloom products and handicrafts including cane, reed and clay products are some examples, as well as metal, electrical and electronic items, footwear, processed food, rubber products, Ayurveda products and of course, the gem and jewellery industry that dates back to ancient times.

Some 90 percent of the raw materials used by a Sri Lankan company in its manufacturing of a wide range of floor tiles are local. Bamboo, which has great potential, is also a good raw material. However, since some industries need imported raw materials as well, value can be added when pricing.

Controlling the spread of the virus is only part of the problem countries are facing. The aftermath of the pandemic is highly unpredictable and the possibility of a global recession will certainly impact us.

In Sri Lanka, the construction industry – which hasn’t recovered fully after the Easter Sunday tragedy of 2019 – will be severely impacted. Even before COVID-19, construction specialists were criticising the industry for not specifying local building materials and opting for imported varieties instead.

Therefore, in the current context, consultants need to play a more significant role in developing and refining local building materials.

The coconut industry has been an important source of foreign exchange and employment generation since colonial times. In fact, the country’s ethos is strongly associated with the coconut tree – not simply for the milk, water and oil, but also the leaves, trunk and fibrous husk that surrounds the coconut. No part of the coconut goes waste in Sri Lanka.

This staple is not only an essential component of our cuisine but there are also coconut related industries. Among them, products made from the kernel, shell, husk, fibre-based coir (from the husk) and copra are major export income earners.

However, early this year, the issue of substandard coconut oil imports dominated the news, whipping up controversy, and thereby becoming a major topic in the political and social discourse.

The All Ceylon Traditional Coconut Oil Manufacturers’ Association first raised this issue at a press conference. The association alleged that 13 containers of imported coconut oil, which the Ministry of Health had declared unfit for human consumption due to high levels of aflatoxins, were being released to the market.

In the light of this situation, it’s essential to boost the production of virgin coconut oil, which has many health advantages. Since virgin coconut oil is extracted from the white kernel instead of the dried copra, it has a colourless quality.

Among other benefits, the good fatty acids in virgin coconut oil also improve the body’s natural immunity and the brain’s cognitive functions.

Ancient Sri Lankans, Indians and Pacific Islanders have known the health value of coconut oil for centuries, and depended on it for high protein, healthy antioxidants, medium chain fatty acids and vitamins. With the development of virgin coconut oil, the world will be able to enjoy its goodness once again.

On the whole, a new economic strategy and design facilities will be required for all local industries that are going to be prioritised in Sri Lanka.