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Sunday, 19 January 2003  
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Lankan geotextiles capture US market

by E. Weerapperuma

Mr.Lanka Santha Chairman of UdaraLanka Coir Exports (Pvt) Ltd

A Sri Lankan now domiciled in the United States of America has introduced geotextiles manufactured from local coir yarn and had taken a considerable share away from geotextile soil bioengineering and erosion control market which was dominated by others, in the past.

Lanka Santha, (Bsc (Eng.) Msc., M.I.E.C. (Eng.P.E.) Chairman of UdaraLanka Coir Exports (Pvt) Ltd., and son of late musician and vocalist Sunil Santha in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer said that he had the opportunity of observing coir geotextiles (woven coir erosion control mat) soil bioengineering and erosion control market in the USA in 1992, produced and marketed by others.

Speaking about his achievements he said that Sri Lanka also could benefit from it if the people concerned of sea erosion, landslide and washing off of the land after heavy downpour. "In my study of the coir geotextiles available in the market I found that they were manufactured using hand spun coir yarn. Having examined the product I was convinced that we in Sri Lanka could produce a better quality.

"I knew well that production of coir geotextile would be a new industry in Sri Lanka, as the country had not known anything about it.

"Sri Lankan coir manufacturers knew nothing of what we were doing or anything about coir geotextiles. Hence the industry would be a new venture and would help to earn valuable foreign exchange and further help the unemployed youth.

coir products

"Sri Lanka is blessed with coconut cultivable large land area mass and there is a Coconut Triangle that produces the bulk of nuts at every season. As children we used to watch lorry loads of coconut husk moving from one direction to another and the coir yarn being taken to Colombo. And those involved in the coir industries knew how to make floor carpets, cricket matting and bags for agricultural applications using weaving machines. They produced the said items using hand spun coir yarns.

"Using my engineering experience, I did an extensive research on the need for organic soil erosion control mats and how to improve the available coir geotextiles for better field performance. High wet tensile strength and high durability of coir geotextile were seen as the key properties for better field performance when they are used in soil bioengineering and erosion control application. My study disclosed that the coir twine made from the machine-twisting process using brown bristle coir, have higher tensile strength and higher durability than the hand spun coir yarns. I achieved my goal by weaving coir geotextiles using machine spun brown bristle coir twines.

"This final product had better strength and durability compared to the best coir geotextile made in India. At that time, we knew that we had the best coir geotextile in the world. In Sri Lankan terminology coir twine is the twine produced from machine twisting process and coir yarn is the twine produced from the hand spinning process," Lanka Santha said.

He said that he pioneered the manufacture of much-improved geotextiles in the country in 1993. "We found a company for this purpose and that was 'Wijesinghe Exports (Pvt) Ltd.,' and Mrs. Calista R. Santha, Anton Wijesinghe, Ruwani Wijesinghe and myself were the members of the Board. The company manufactured the coir geotextiles according to our specifications.

"There was a gradual demand for our products and we could not meet the demand. We had the support of Piyadasa Koralage who undertook to make coir geotextiles according to our specifications. Having understood that he had to keep to the schedules, he began training people who owned weaving machines. They were mostly from Ambalangoda, Wennappuwa and Madampe. In the process we had to sacrifice our product specifications, he added.

"In 1993, Sri Lanka entered the US soil bioengineering and erosion control market with this better quality product under RoLanka International, Inc. It was very challenging and was not an easy task. Though we had a better quality product with a better price we found it very difficult to enter the market, as the market was very familiar with other products. It took several years of hard work to get the US industry recognition, to our improved coir geotextile. Those years were the most difficult years for us", Lanka Santha explained.

Explaining the difficulties and hardships he had to face he had this to say: "In the first few years importing our product and selling same in the USA faced extreme difficulties. We were very patient and continued with our research, testing our products and giving demonstrations to the Architectural and engineering communities.

The industry began to respond when an article was published in May/June 1994 issue of the 'Land and Water' magazine. The title of the article was 'Coir, An Abundant Natural Resource' and the real turning point was in February 1995. We both (my wife and I) were invited to present two technical papers at the International Erosion Control Association (IECA) annual conference held in Atlanta.

The two papers presented at the annual conference were "Standards for Coir erosion and sediment control Products" and "Effective Utilisation of Fully Matured Grass in Erosion Control". In these papers we compared test data for our coir geotextiles with that of others and the data presented clearly showed that ours was far superior to products available with market and well in tensile strength. And this tuned the wheel in our favour", he said with a smile on his face.

He also disclosed that in 1993 Sri Lanka Industrial Development Board (SLIDB) granted the pioneering Project Idea Status for the company's coir twine geotextile project. The IDB's very recognition of the RoLanka's product as an innovative idea was an acknowledgement that Sri Lanka had never before manufactured coir geotextiles.

Processing the husk of the coconut fruit produces Coconut fibre. The processed fibre (coir) is turned into threads and these threads are used to make the erosion control BioD-Mat. The BioD-Mat has some unique advantages over the conventional temporary and permanent erosion control mats. Coconut thread has a very high tensile strength. Each thread can withstand tensile strengthens up to 40 to 50 lbs in wet and dry conditions, respectively.

These coconut threads are a 100 per cent environmentally friendly material and do not contain a trace of polypropylene, PVC or plastic. This 100 per cent biodegradable erosion control mat will last four to ten years before decomposing depending on the application. Coconut fibre is very resistant to the UV degradation as compared to synthetic material.

BioD-Mat can successfully handle high water velocities up to 15fps. The coconut thread consists of two types of fibre: high tensile strength fairly stiff fibers and hairy soft fibers. Due to the blend of these two fibers the thread has a high water absorption capacity. This capability in BioD-Mat provides an excellent environment for seed germination. The open areas in BioD-Mat enhance seedling growth and also provide excellent results in hydro seeding.

Therefore it is possible to reseed after the installation of the mat. BioD-Mat has numerous advantages over existing permanent erosion control products. Permanent erosion control mats are made out of synthetic-material, which will exist in the ground after establishing vegetation.

BioD-Mat is excellent for soils that require more than one to two growing seasons to develop good vegetation. During its life BioD-Mat will protect slopes and control erosion until the establishment of a complete vegetative cover. The BioD-Mat will decompose after a period of time leaving excellent mulch for the growing vegetation.

The artificial mat under the vegetation cover will act as a barrier to many soil organisms in their seasonal migration and this creates a threat to the ecosystem causing an imbalance in the system. Presence of an artificial mat under a well established vegetation cover delivers more disadvantages than advantages. Once the BioD-Mat is decomposed there is no interference with activities such as mowing and digging which might be an essential, in order to maintain the natural beauty. BioD-Mat is the answer to these problems. In addition BioD-Mat is easy to install as compared to the other permanent erosion control mats. Another major advantage of the BioD-Mat is relatively low cost. This product came into the US soil bioengineering and erosion control market in 1993.

If one look around Sri Lanka he will find that the rock stones are being placed to avoid erosion and along the Puttalam Canal one could see the rock stones laid along the canal cannot stop the gushing waters eating into the land. The Bio-D Mat might be the answer. Mr. Lanka Santha said that with the growth in demand for Sri Lanka products he founded a new company named UdaraLanka Coir Exports (Pvt) Ltd., and built a new factory at Hettipola to manufacture coir geotextiles. "We have obtained a patent for the coir geotextiles made according to our specification and three more patents from here one is pending in the USA. All these are for coir based products.

I hope to get a US patent for all our new products and these are very vital for the success of the business in the USA. This factory provides direct employment to over 100 and indirect employment to a considerable number of families. Most of the workers employed are females", he told the Sunday Observer.

Since my entry into the geotextile soil bioengineering and erosion control market in the USA many coir manufacturers export geotextiles made from coir yarns to several countries. I help the Sri Lanka coffers with my coir twine geotextiles, which sell, mostly to US market. The real truth is that my new products will bring more foreign exchange and generate new jobs.

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