Palmyrah industry: Systematic branding, marketing program needed | Sunday Observer

Palmyrah industry: Systematic branding, marketing program needed

Palmyrah based production has not reached its zenith
Palmyrah based production has not reached its zenith

The skyline of the entire Northern Province is dotted with palmyrah trees: a symbol of resilience. The palmyrah tree though found in clusters in this vast and arid landscape is venerated by thousands. It is not a tree that survives on its own.

It is a tree that sustains life. For decades the tree has yielded itself: sap, fruit, tuber, leaf and fiber to produce an array of items from sweets, toddy, vinegar, handicrafts, cooking aids, odiyal flour, molasses, palm wine, brushes, roofing material and organic manure.

On a recent visit to Jaffna and other areas we were stunned to see the impact of this tree on the community. The tree lines demarcate land boundaries. As we ventured into the busy Jaffna market we spoke to some traders selling these products.

Asian palmyrah (Borassus flabellifer)

Wijelakshmi, a woman in her early fifties said, “We depend on the income of these products. The palmyrah tree sustains us.”

Another trader who did not wish to reveal his name, was selling handicrafts and other items used in food preparation such as the kulla (sulaku/winnow) and stringhopper trays.

He also had spoons and ladels made from palmyrah. Many of these vendors voiced their concerns about improving the standards of products and also facilitating sales and awareness.

Many cited the lack of packaging and also the costs of transport, as many relied on bicycles and motorbikes. At the Jaffna market the stalls would imply the lack of respect, from the vendors and consumers. Before this, this writer had made four visits to the North and made observations with regards to this industry.

Yet, the palmyrah industry has made reasonable progress. The Palmyrah Research Institute (PRI) at Kaithady, Jaffna was restored and opened on July, 2012.

Today, this institute has four laboratories for research and development and has obtained ISO certification. The PRI plays a vital role, as they think of innovative ways to enhance existing products.

A major stakeholder in the industry is the Palmyrah Development Board (PDB). It is based Jaffna with regional offices at Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Ampara, Puttalam, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaithivu, Kilinochchi and Hambantota. The products also reach the consumers at retail shops using the name ‘Katpaham’.

The Colombo ‘Katpaham’ store was earlier located at Bambalapitiya, opposite St. Pauls Church, Milagiriya but has now relocated to W.A. Silva Mawatha, Colombo 6.

Areas lacking in this industry are the absence of systematic branding and marketing, especially in English to reach a different tier of customers with high purchasing power.

Often, those who visit Katpaham buy on sentimental impulse - to reconnect to food and beverage that their grandparents fed them. Katpaham at Wellawatte obviously caters to a majority of Tamil customers, but has the PDB reached out to other communities in Colombo?

We have spoken to many ‘visiting’ Tamils from Europe and America who say the showroom must be upgraded and staff trained to be more customer-oriented.

A lack of fluent English does not allow the staff to entice non-Tamil speaking visitors. Perhaps, the PDB has not yet reached the full potential of rebranding Katpahm outlets to match Laksala and Lakpahana showroom levels.

Going back to Jaffna, we did not see a single sign board on the major roads advertising palmyrah products, although there are five Katpaham outlets there. With tourism gaining reasonable momentum in Jaffna, are tourists able to buy these products? The PDB sells natural drinks in tetra packs, ideal for travellers. It reflects a deep void in branding and advertising.

In our travels across the country, we have patronised spice gardens and tea based sales venues of excellent standard. Not only do these places generate profit; they also uplift the cultural identity of the regional products.

Why has PDB reached such low levels? They must be given credit for organising the international symposium titled ‘Let’s globalise the glory of Palmyrah’ held at the Galle Face Hotel in 2017. This is the way forward and is very commendable. Will we see a palmyrah products counter at the Katunayake airport in the future?

There are various resources in the Northern Province including fisheries, tobacco and vegetable cultivation. However, Palmyrah based production has not reached its zenith.

In our travels we stopped at random and asked people their opinions. Some felt that there was no interest in these items, relegating their value. Younger folk said working in this industry was not lucrative and did not give them a personal branding in comparison to working in ‘government service’ or being a respected teacher.

We observed hundreds of housewives with no employment. Why have these women not been enticed in making palmyrah products? The palmyrah trees support the eco system, yet according to statistics of the PDB Development Division, the number of trees felled are: 20,607 in 2014, followed by 21,253 in 2015 and 28,452 in 2016. This must be regulated.

General Manager of the Palmyrah Development Board, Loganathan said he was happy that PRI and PDB are operating well.

“Since the Colombo symposium in 2017, we have received orders from the UK for handicrafts and orders for food in Canada, where thousands of Tamils are domiciled. I visited India in January to learn and observe their palmyrah projects,” he said.

He said expanding in Colombo was a costly exercise; however, they are looking at a second outlet. The PDB hopes to enhance the English skills of its sales staff in the future.

Loganathan is confident of a commercial revival of the industry. It is now conducive for the palmyrah industry to be a positive contributor to the national economy, and even attract FDI for new ventures.