A crop for all seasons

Interview with Dr Raju Narayana Swamy, Chairman, Coconut Development Board.

Published : Feb 13, 2019 12:30 IST

In India , the coconut tree ( Cocos nucifera ) is eulogised as “kalpavriksha”, the wish-fulfilling tree. Coconut production plays an important role in the national economy of India .The Coconut Development Board (CDB), a statutory body established in 1981 under the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, and with its headquarters in Kochi, Kerala, has been formulating and implementing several schemes for the integrated development of coconut cultivation and industry, with a focus on productivity increase and product diversification. Excerpts from an email interview with Dr Raju Narayana Swamy, Chairman, CDB, about the Board’s plans and policies:

How successful has the CDB been in bringing more areas under coconut cultivation and extending market access for coconut farmers?

The CDB has given small and marginal farmers several incentives. In addition to covering more areas in traditional belts, coconut cultivation has been extended to non-traditional States such as Gujarat, Bihar, Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Compared with 10.83 lakh hectares [ha] in 1980-81, the total area of cultivation increased to 20.99 lakh ha in 2017-18.

Market access is provided to coconut farmers through participation in trade fairs and exhibitions. Buyer-seller meets are also organised to help develop trade linkages. One such meet was organised in Patna, Bihar, in November 2018 to facilitate the demand for fresh coconuts during the Chhat festival. Representatives from farmer producer companies in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh had direct interactions with the traders and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce in Bihar. Improvement in quality is also promoted through assistance for quality certification. The Board also supports the establishment of grass-roots-level procurement centres for post-harvest handling and primary processing of coconuts.

What are the major challenges before the Board in ensuring a steady remunerative price for coconut farmers?

The collectivisation of small and marginal farmers into producer organisations has emerged as one of the most effective ways to address the challenges in agriculture. This helps member farmers earn their fair share by avoiding intermediaries. The Board has initiated the formation of farmer producer organisations [FPOs] with the aim of providing a fair, steady and remunerative income to farmers.

The FPOs have a three-tier structure. The base is the coconut producer societies [CPS], which are mostly engaged in the aggregation of primary produce. The middle layer is the coconut producer federations [or CPFs, consisting of 20 to 25 CPSs] that are engaged in medium-scale investment activities. And the topmost tier is the coconut producer companies [or CPCs comprising eight to 10 CPFs]. The companies are registered under the Indian Companies Act, 2013, and are wholly owned by the farmers. Through this initiative, we could simultaneously promote input supply and output processing in the coconut sector. Also, such collectives of farmers increase their bargaining power, reduce marketing costs and provide better prices. The CDB encourages better post-harvest handling and value addition. We also have a scheme to support FPOs to set up their own exclusive sales outlets of coconuts and value-added coconut products.

What are the initiatives undertaken by the CDB to promote new products?

The coconut industry is a sunrise industry with unlimited potential for processing and value addition. The demand for value-added coconut products is on an upward trend. Virgin coconut oil, which is used for curing Alzheimer’s and many other diseases, is not being produced on a large scale in Kerala or in other coconut-producing States. We have the capability to compete with countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Moisturisers, hand creams, face creams, and so on, containing virgin coconut oil are in demand.

Neera [the sap extracted from the spathe, or the immature flower spike of coconut trees] is another product from which products such as Neera honey, Neera sugar, Neera jaggery, and so on, can be produced. Desiccated coconut powder, coconut milk powder, packed tender coconut, snowball tender coconut, jaggery and coconut sugar are other products. Coir, coconut pith, coconut leaf, coconut shell and other parts of the tree can be used for making various products.

The Board is planning to distribute coconut through coconut producer companies and sell this to temples at moderate prices. It is also planning to create facilities for selling coconut products at airports and railway stations.

The basic aim of the Technology Mission on Coconut [TMOC], an initiative of the CDB, is to divert raw coconuts for making value-added products instead of traditional products such as ball copra, copra and oil. Under this scheme, the Board provides financial assistance as back-ended subsidy and helps existing coconut industries enhance their capacity and improve their economic viability. The TMOC initiative has helped enhance the market potential for coconut products both in domestic and international markets. It also helps in controlling and stabilising market prices of raw coconuts, providing competitive and remunerative prices to farmers and in boosting export earnings.

How is the Board addressing the challenge of pestilence and diseases?

The Board aims to introduce scientific innovations and technologies, including artificial intelligence [AI]. Chances of infestation can be identified using unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones”. When a plant is affected, the first symptom is the depletion of chlorophyll. It can be identified by the use of infrared lighting systems. So it is possible to drive away insects and resist diseases at least 10 days before it starts spreading. Another problem in this sector is that pesticides and fertilizers are not being used properly. The Board aims to provide technical inputs to farmers free of cost for the proper use of pesticides and fertilizers, whichwill bring down the cost of cultivation.

The Board has also implemented schemes for replanting and rejuvenation of trees in old coconut farms and initiated integrated farming to increase productivity.

What are the innovative technologies promoted by the Board?

Several technologies have already been developed and commercialised under sponsored research projects of the Board in association with the Central Food Technological Research Institute [CFTRI] and the Defence Food Research Laboratory [DFRL], Mysuru. The Project Approval Committee of the Technology Mission on Coconut has recently approved the project of the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute [CPCRI], Kasargode, on “UAV-based monitoring system” for the precise and early detection of diseases and pests. The commercialisation of tender coconut vending carts and coconut ice cream vending machines developed by the Department of Agriculture, Government of Tamil Nadu, and the Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology [IIFPT], Thanjavur, is also under active consideration.

The Board is teaming up with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research CSIR-CFTRI, Mysuru, for the creation of a “sensory lexicon” and the development of coconut-based products for sustenance in sports. The Board, in association with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, is to conduct studies on the effect of virgin coconut oil on cardio metabolic parameters in patients with dyslipidaemia and in preventing oral cancer. These studies are expected to provide conclusive scientific evidence of the health attributes of coconut products, adding to their unique selling proposition.

The Board has requested the Central Agricultural University, Imphal, Manipur to develop a road map for the comprehensive development of coconut cultivation and value addition in the north-east. Other initiatives are in the pipeline.

India is the world leader in coconut production and productivity. In 2019, the Board envisages all efforts to make India the global leader in processing and value addition of coconut. This will lead to the fulfilment of the Government of India’s vision to double farmers’ income by 2022.

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