A Story from Coffee. Ideas for our economic revival.
Posted on September 14th, 2020

By Garvin Karunaratne , former G.A.Matara

The other day, locked down in Sri Lanka because of the Corona,  I ran out of the Starbucks Coffee I had brought with me. Being a coffee connoisseur,  the tastes of Island, Hariischandra and Wijeya Coffee did not satisfy me. I have yet to find Soul Coffee.  They are all the same- the same taste as half a century ago. They were all pure coffee, not blended to different tastes. I went to Coffe Bean, the leading coffee maker in Colombo that has a countless number of coffee outlets in Colombo  . Most of those joints only sold the coffee as a drink and ultimately they directed me to go to their headquarter store on Ward Place .  At Ward Place they offered me a pack of coffee beans imported from the USA-    at Rs 2400. That was a pack of 8 ozs. That size of  packet is sold at around  five pounds at Starbucks in London and Island Coffee sells this quantity  for around five hundred rupees

They ground the coffee and it tasted good.. I made inquiries.. The coffee beans, all roasted to taste,  had been imported from the USA- California, Camarillo CA 93012. California does not produce coffee. So the coffee comes from a non producing country to us, a coffee producer!  Coffee beans come mainly from African countries. the pack is sold in Califorrnia  for around seven dollars come to us and gets sold to us at Rs 2400 the equal of some ten pounds.

Sri Lanka instead of growing coffee has been importing from China, Malaysia, Thailand all countries visited by me where I have been struck with how they organize their agriculture. We also import from Mid East countries that do not grow coffee.

That is where our foreign exchange has been going since 1977. Once we did produce the best  coffee in the world. On my irrigation inspections in Kitulgala long ago I have seen coffee bushes full of coffee beans, bright red in colour. I have not seen that much of luscious growth anywhere else. I have also seen similar coffee in coffee bushes at Kotmale when I worked in Nuwara Eliya. But now Kotmale has been axed  by the Kotmale Dam- all to produce some  200 MW of power- some power that we could have easily produced from some 70    wind turbines scattered in Kotmale itself and the luscious productive  land in Kotmale and the charming people would have been saved. But that is another story. See   my Paper: Sitawaka Hydro Project:  in Lanka Web11/8/19. to understand the nuances in our development order where we sacrifice what development and production we have and more we justify doing it. I am sad that Sri Lanka had no leaders who could avoid getting bluffed by interested influentials and I hope that our new President will tackle problems efficiently. That brain that tackled the LTTE will I am dead cert will stand up to that task.

Kitulgala  is our coffee belt.  We do need to ban the import of coffee which  our President has done, I think. Simultaneously we have to encourage the picking of coffee pods from the existing coffee bushes, immediately get going with encouraging the coffee growers to put some manure and cow dung, and wear a mask and additional clothes when plucking because coffee bushes are also full of mosquitoes . There has to be a village organization to activize the coffee growers and also the Government must offer   a guaranteed price to buy coffee-like what we did in the Marketing Department in the Fifties when we offered guaranteed prices for many items that  we imported- that was in the Fifties and when production increased we ended that scheme. But now we have no organization to buy the produce.  Both the Marketing Department and the worthwhile sections of the Agrarian Services have been axed at the dictate of the International Monetary Fund that the Government should not attend to any commerce.

We do talk big about having guaranteed prices but the IMF axed the organization that we had built to implement that scheme. Motoring around Sri Lanka today I often spot the Agrarian Services stores- now overgrown with shrubs, neglected. Then they were  places vibrant with life, where the multipurpose cooperatives that purchased produce from producers and handed over. It is easy to talk of guaranteed prices but we should know that we do not now have the officialdom to purchase the produce. Take paddy we talk big about what we collect every season, but we forget that the benefit of the premium price has fattened the trader. The paddy producers have no cooperative stores to hand it over and sell to the traders for a song who hands it over to the government stores and benefit from the premium price. And our economic sleuths in our Ministries fail to grasp that the producer is left in the lurch while the traders benefit. The main aim of a  guaranteed premium price is to help the producer gain a premium price so that he will be encouraged to grow more.

Once in the Fifties working in the Agrarian Services in charge of the Anuradhapura District I had ten smart and able, very vibrant divisional officers, who could even sell ice to the Eskimoes. Under them I had some fifty trained overseers and they manned two hundred and ninety eight cultivation committees- where farmers would meet very often and get coaxed by me and my team to use fertilizer, improved seed and that was how the Green Revolution brought Sri Lanka to the brink of self sufficiency in paddy- all while implementing a scheme to offer rice at reduced rates to the needy- a target that had never been achieved in any country. Then I had the organization,. In fact then I remember we did import maize and I offered to produce all the maize that was imported in one season. One word from me and my giants- they were real giants and I was proud of them, would have mobilized the people through the vibrant cultivation committees.. The Government did not approve my suggestion and we worked only on paddy. Now we talk. The Government has to bring back the Marketing Department and the sections of the Agrarian Services that were axed. There is no other way.

Let us use our expertise to see what can be done for coffee. To start with   sad to say the Department of Agriculture is dead at the village level today. They have no organization at the village level and no men.  This happened some twenty eight years ago in 1992 when President Premadasa in one of his unguarded moments  promoted all Agricultural Overseers, some 2400 of them to the rank of Grama Niladhari. The specialists in agriculture the trained overseers all became white collar workers as Grama Niladharis, pushing pens on paper instead of working in the villages.

Sad to say till today there is no field level overseer trained in agriculture. Today the closest trained agricultural officer works at the divisional level. This officer  has a few thousands of farmers to cater to =  the needs of some 3500 farmers in Ranorawa and as much as 13,000 farmers in Yodakandiya, (From patriot Ranith Mulleriyawa : The Island 04/06/2013) In short today our specialist agriculture department has no base and as far as organizing be it coffee or any other crop our officers can plan on paper and send it to the divisional level. After that there can be no action whatsoever other than the Agricultural Instructor at the divisional level  meeting a few farmers and writing something back to the District Agricultural Officer. Then the statistics get transformed to documents on glazed paper and  ably documented. The Department of Agriculture,  figuratively is a monster  with provincial ministers, secretaries and directors with no legs, producing only reams of reports without a base!

So ends anything in agriculture, be it coffee, potatoes, maize or any other crop.

What we need immediately for Coffee is a guaranteed price and an organization to help the producer to produce more. There has also to be subsidies offered to get people to plant more coffee bushes. Further it is necessary that  some government organization gets cracking  to the task of finding how coffee can be blended to taste. Therein comes what I directed in Matara as the Government Agent in 1971. Our President has got the State Ministers on the move. It is necessary to get the mass of Government Agents and their vast staffs amounting to thousands cracking. Perhaps what I did at Matara may offer ideas.

I wanted to find the art of making a crayon to establish an industry. We requisitioned the science lab at Rahula Collage every evening from six to midnight and  we- my Planning Officer, a chemistry graduate and katcheri  officers were hard at work helped by the science teachers of Rahula to find the art of making crayons. It took a myriad of experimental trials and we did find the art of making crayons in three months. Then we dragged in the cooperatives  to establish Coop Crayon, which was a great success.  Sumanapala Dhanayake the Member of Parliament for Deniyaya happened to be the President of the Coop Union at Morawaka  and I can in nostalgia recall getting down to make crayons. It was done in double quick time-in three weeks working on a 24 hour basis- on most days I too broke rest.  It was hailed as great success by the Minister of Industries Mr Subasingfhe and crayons were sold islandwide. That is what we immediately require for coffee- someone to experiment. Recently I stayed a few nights in a leading star resort in Anuradhapura and got to know the chief chef. I had a chat with him trying to entice him to blend coffee with a flash of vanilla and the likes to get different tastes. I can do no more- only talk. The Government has to take the lead to find the blends and get cracking in production  so that we can chase away Nescafe from our shores and save our valuable foreign exchange and also creating employment for our own people..

 In the days of Sirimavo we did have that organization – the Divisional Development Councils, the brain of Dr NM at work.  Dr NM is no more. . Our President is kindly requested to get cracking with a programme like the DDCP, a better one which will get down to work in producing what we need and thereby save foreign exchange as well as finding employment for our people. Stopping imports is the first step. This has to be supplemented  with a production base which we do not have.  My own work the Youth Self Employment Programme does flash in my mind. Then  I was marching with the Youth Officers in the villages and marshes of Bangladesh, guiding vocationally trained youths to establish ventures and they did succeed. Today the Ministry of Youth Development has  reformed to a  role of guiding youth to establish enterprises and mind you by now three million of them are at work- the largest employment creation programme the world has known. . My Paper Youth Employment: A Prime Necessity” in Lanka Web: 11/10/2019   tells it all. . (www..lankaweb.com/news/items/2019/10/11/youth-employment-a-prime-necessity)

We need new thinking for Sri Lanka to emerge under our new President.

I hope this paper will somehow reach the eyes of our new leaders.

Garvin Karunaratne, , Ph.D in Non Formal Education and Agricultural Economics (Michigan State University) garvin_karunaratne@ hotmail.com

Former Senior Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services and G.A. Matara


One Response to “A Story from Coffee. Ideas for our economic revival.”

  1. Nimal Says:

    4 decades ago one of my American friends told me that they enhance the taste of packed coffee with peanut powder developed by an ethnic scientist named George Washington Cavo.(sounds like that)

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