Shree Padre, Colombo
Anula Sirisena is a Sri Lankan housewife from a poor family. She lives in a village near Kandy. Anula has seven jackfruit trees on her piece of land. But her jackfruits used to go waste since she didn’t know how to earn money from trees.
About seven years ago Anula’s life changed for the better. She enrolled at the Horticulture Crop Research and Development Institute (HORDI) run by the Sri Lankan government’s Ministry of Agriculture. HORDI taught her to make sambal, chutney and pickle from tender jackfruit, called polos in Sinhala. All three are staple additives in Sinhalese meals.
Anula now runs a microenterprise in jackfruit products under the Samanala brand name. Samanala means butterfly. Her husband, Sirisena, helps her or she hires an extra hand, if needed. Her neatly packaged and labelled products are retailed at the Ministry of Agriculture’s sales centre in Peradeniya. Anula produces a few other processed foodstuffs too. Her family now earns 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees a year.
Historically, the jackfruit has always enjoyed the status of a holy tree in Sri Lanka. Named baat gasa or ‘rice tree’ it is said to have saved Lankans from hunger in a crisis. Jackfruit has social and religious connotations in Sri Lanka too. In recent years it is the economic significance of jackfruit that has grown. Since the past 10 years HORDI, funded by the International Centre for Underutilized Crops (ICUC), has trained free of cost, street vendors, housewives and entrepreneurs in minimal processing, dehydration, and bottling technologies. The institute’s ex-students now manufacture a range of jackfruit products for the domestic and export market. So the jackfruit not only staves hunger, it yields jobs and money.
It isn’t HORDI alone that is training people. Around 14 institutions have pitched in. NGOs and others charge a fee. The Industrial Training Institute (ITI) has in the last 20 years organized 200 workshops and trained 2,000 people in minimal processing of jackfruit.
As a result, Sri Lanka has become the world leader in making jackfruit the key to food security and raising the incomes of the poor. Short duration training and support have empowered rural families. Each household has a few jackfruit trees that the family can’t wholly consume. They now know how to convert their jackfruits into products for sale in urban markets.
Most jackfruit enterprises on the island are not high-end companies but medium scale operators and home industries. This strategy has made jackfruit products affordable for everyone.
According to Dr Subha Heenkenda, Research Officer at HORDI, the total area under jackfruit on the island is 50,000 hectares. “So our country will never starve,” says Dr Subha proudly. On an average, each tree bears 35 fruits of 20 kg each. According to HORDI’s estimates, the island’s total annual production of jackfruit is 1400,000 tonnes.
Streets and markets: “Minimal processing is the easiest business to start,” says Senarath Ekanayake, Research Officer, Food Research Unit in HORDI, the key person behind training in jackfruit value addition and minimal processing. “You don’t need any heavy investment or machinery. You can start at 3 am, pack your products by 6 am and send your consignment off in the first bus. You don’t make any losses even if you don’t produce anything for a day or two. Unlike pickle, jam or jelly, you don’t have to wait for months.”
Take Manel Sriyani, who trained at HORDI. Manel and her family have been producing four varieties of ready-to-cook products from tender jackfruit (polos) and unripe jackfruit (kos). They sell around 120 packets per day. A 250-gm pack is priced at Rs 25. Her packets sell in local shops and at the agriculture department’s sales counter. She also supplies to three supermarkets in Kandy.
“We are happy because this is a business we can manage ourselves with occasional help from outside,” says Manel Sriyani, “One of our requirements is a machine to chop the peeled tender jackfruits. This part of our work requires three hours and a lot of energy.” Their small old house is now being remodeled into a concrete home, indicative of the money they have finally managed to earn thanks to minimal processing of jackfruit.
Sri Lanka has around 70 units today which produce ready-to-cook jackfruit after minimal processing. These packets are sold to vegetable shops and supermarkets. Then, there are hundreds of street vendors who cut jackfruit in front of their customers or sell pre-packed jackfruit. “Vissa, vissa!” you hear vendors shouting in Kandy’s busy market. Vissa means ‘cheap’ and it is freshly cut jackfruit that is on offer.
The jackfruit is cut into three different shapes for three different curries. The cube shape – exclusively meant for polos curry – is the most popular. For polos mellum, tender jackfruit is chopped into small bits. Very few vendors sell jackfruit in large pieces for making cutlets or dunking into biryani.
Antony, 47, who sells freshly cut jackfruit on a cart in Colombo’s Malay Street says this is his family business. He joined his father about 35 years ago. Antony’s team of four begins cutting jackfruit at 5 am. They sell till noon. A kilo of freshly cut jackfruit is priced at Rs 60. On an average they sell around a quintal. Antony also sells waraka, a fruity jackfruit and tambili, a large coconut variety for which Sri Lanka is famous. He closes business at noon and begins once again at 3 pm continuing till sunset.
Dried jackfruit: Sri Lanka has also been very successful in training poorer communities in dehydration, a technology that extends the shelf life of vegetables and fruits up to six months at least. Menike Wijekoon from Rajawella is a recent entrant into the jackfruit value addition business. She used to work at a dolomite factory. Menike decided to switch careers and enrolled for a four-day training programme on dehydration of fruits and vegetables at the Vidhatha Centre run by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Technology.
After training she invested in a 25 kg capacity drier. Today, her flagship product is dehydrated unripe jackfruit. She also produces dehydrated bitter gourd, brinjal, curry leaves, kohila and ladyfingers. Neatly packed under her brand name, Pradeepa, Menike’s products are also sold at the Peradeniya Sales Centre.
A 200 gm packet of dehydrated unripe jackfruit is priced at Rs 145. This jackfruit can be used to make curry after soaking the dried chunks in water for 30 minutes. But since fresh vegetables are available at a cheaper price, Menike’s clientele consists mainly of non-resident Sri Lankans who pick up her products to take them back to the country they work in. So Menike could say her business is mainly export-oriented.
One of her interesting products is jack seed powder, globally recognized as a very nutritious food. Sri Lankans use it to make a crispy snack called murukku. A 200 gm packet of Menike’s jack seed powder costs Rs 60. Although sales are not that brisk, Menike says she manages to sell about 50 kg a year of jack seed powder.
The leader in popularizing dehydration technology is the Rural Enterprises Network (REN) started in 2002. REN emerged from a micro-enterprise project of Practical Action, a poverty eradication programme started by the Intermediate Technology Development Group. REN develops micro and small-scale rural enterprises by helping them with a range of business development services. It promotes processed agro-produce under a common brand name, nationally and in global markets.
REN is a pioneer in unripe jackfruit dehydration. Practical Action did a lot of R&D with different types of driers. They have developed low cost driers that run on firewood and sawdust. Electric driers are very expensive. “Jackfruit is one of our products,” clarifies Nilantha Athapattu, a manager with REN. “We have large production units with 200 kg capacity driers and 45 small-scale driers that can dry 20 kg in a batch. Jackfruit dehydration goes on for about eight months.”
People are trained in batches. Each unit consists of five or eight people. Another two or three trainees are responsible for raw material collection. In fact, ordinary village women now produce dehydrated jackfruit and other products at quality acceptable to supermarkets. This is an enviable achievement for REN.
According to Nilantha, each unit procures jackfruit from around 50 households. This means REN must be helping more than 1,500 families earn more from their jackfruit. “There are families who earn between 3,000 and 4,000 rupees a month,” says Nilantha.
Since the last three years, REN has diversified into bottling jackfruit products. There is a training course. Five groups are manufacturing on an average 1,000 bottles per month of polos curry, kos in brine, tender jackfruit in brine, polos mellum and polos sambal.
Unlike REN, Vista Natural Products in Aranayake near Kandy, is trying to sell its dehydrated unripe jackfruit in local markets. This three-year-old unit run by Dr Jagath Elvitigala produces three types of dehydrated jackfruit to match three kinds of kos curries – Kiri Kos, Kos Thambuma and Kos Melluma.
Dr Elvitigala’s unit employs four women and works for three days a week. Freshly peeled jackfruit bulbs are bought thus avoiding the bother of employing labour to do this at the unit. “Marketing is our biggest bottleneck,” says B.M. Ariyarathna, who is the unit’s manager. “In supermarkets they ask us for discounts up to 30 per cent and demand extended credit. We are selling to a few restaurants too.”
But the adventurous doctor, who has settled in this village from Colombo, is not ready to give up. He has planted selected grafts of jackfruit on five acres. These trees have now started to yield fruits. “I want to set up the industry here. This way we can achieve quality with our own raw material and hopefully improve our market base.”
Local to global: Companies have not lagged behind. Sri Lanka has about 10 to 12 big companies who have been producing and marketing jackfruit products for over a decade. These are exported to 10 to 15 countries. Their customers are Sri Lankans living and working abroad.
There is no domestic demand for canned or bottled jackfruit products even in local supermarkets. Fresh jackfruit is available at a lower price in local markets.
“When we started our first factory in 1989, we gave priority to jackfruit products. At that time there was huge demand from Asians living abroad,” says Nimal Jayasuriya, managing director of Foreconns Canneries.
But now, he says, the industry is facing two major challenges. “Bottles and tins are very expensive here since they have to be mainly imported. Thai companies are giving us stiff competition in products like tender jackfruit in brine since labour is cheaper there. We are able to retain our market only in our traditional products like polos curry and polos mellum,” says Nimal.
Australia has emerged as a major market for Araliya Exports based in Colombo. “When we started a decade ago, only one or two companies were making jackfruit products. “Today that number has increased to more than10,” says Mailvaganam Rajkumar, managing director of Araliya Exports. “Jackfruit products are very easy to produce and convenient for Western consumers. You just need to heat and eat.”
Araliya’s jackfruit products are exported to Canada, the US, Switzerland and Male Island. Every year exports increase by five to 10 per cent. Their most recent importer is China which is buying polos curry. “There is good scope for market expansion. But what is lacking is awareness of the nutritional value of jackfruit in the West.”
Interestingly, polos curry is so popular in Sri Lanka that it almost seems to be a ‘national dish.’ Everybody, from roadside restaurants to five star hotels, serves it. Explains an elderly Sri Lankan gentleman: “You place polos curry on the table with other non-vegetarian curries. Your guests will first have polos curry and then the fish or chicken curries.”
Another curry gaining popularity in Australia is Kallu Pol Maluwa. This dish is made with jack seed powder and fried coconut. Like polos curry, it is a traditional Sri Lankan recipe.
It is generally agreed that the commercial polos curries don’t match up to the traditionally made dish. “The taste of the traditional curry made in a few villages is much better. It takes two entire days to prepare polos curry. And it has to be cooked in an earthen pot on a low flame,” says Senarath Ekanayake.
Then and now: Sri Lanka’s jackfruit journey has come a long way since freshly cut jackfruit was first introduced on streets and in markets after 1977, when the economy began to liberalise. Now, according to Wasantha Wijewardhane, a social activist, “Jackfruit attracts more urban consumers because it is very safe unlike other pesticide ridden vegetables. It is slowly attaining the status of a money-spinning crop. It is not uncommon for a jackfruit weighing a kg to sell for Rs 100 in Colombo. Many people now want to plant jackfruit.”
Twenty-five years ago the jackfruit scenario was bleak here. Lorry loads of jackfruit brought from Ratnapura or Badulla were offloaded cheap in the markets of Colombo.
Now farmers have realized that jackfruit fetches money. If one jackfruit is sold in Colombo for Rs 100, the farmer probably makes only Rs 10. But it is still bringing in an income so cutting of jackfruit trees has decreased.
However, training people in minimal processing, dehydration and bottling technologies has yet to reach far- flung villages, says Padma Pushpakanthi, national secretary of Savisthri, a women’s NGO working for jackfruit development. She says in her village, Walapola in Kegalle district, jackfruit which is not consumed by the family just goes waste. “These simple technologies of drying or minimal processing have not reached my village,” she says.
According to Dr Heenkenda, Sri Lanka consumes about 25 to 30 per cent of its tender jackfruit as a vegetable. The minimal processing enterprises – both trained and untrained vendors – have increased the consumption of jackfruit by 10 per cent. This is not a small achievement. “But all said and done,” he says. “Our total consumption will not surpass a paltry 25 per cent.” Wasantha Wijewardane, on the other hand, says probably around 50 per cent of Sri Lanka’s jackfruit is consumed domestically.
Another drawback is that jackfruit is not popular as a fruit. Efforts to do so have been relegated to the backseat. With its considerable inflow of tourists and mushrooming supermarkets, Sri Lanka could make fresh bulb sales popular. Sweets like jackfruit varatty which Kerala is famous for, or jackfruit papad and sweet papad are unknown in Sri Lanka. Preservation of jackfruit in sugar syrup is somewhat popular.
It is also surprising that Sri Lanka’s processed jackfruit products have not made any inroads into the Indian market. Both in south and north India, Sri Lanka’s polos curry, tender jack in brine, jack seed curry etc would attract buyers.
Today, tender jackfruit and ripe jackfruit are available in Colombo throughout the year. The minimal processing units produce ready-to-cook tender jackfruit for 10 months. They take a two- month gap not because raw material is not available but because it turns out to be expensive.
“There used to be two jackfruit seasons here,” says Sarananda Hewage, a senior horticulture officer. “ The yala season from March to August and the maha season from November to January. But now we get jackfruit through the year in Colombo.”
Sunil, a roadside vendor on the Kandy-Colombo highway, doesn’t close his shop unless he has some emergency to attend to. He always stocks mature jackfruit, which he personally selects and sources from nearby villages. Perhaps it is time the seasonal tag was removed from jackfruit.
We, in India, can learn a lot from Sri Lanka’s experience in using natural resources and doing value addition. It is a tribute to the Sri Lankan spirit that despite internal conflict and turmoil, the island has forged ahead. It has achieved success in the production and marketing of treacle and jaggery, curries from breadfruit and banana flower, jam from wood apple, herbal tea and many other processed products. This is indicative of their enterprising nature and hard work.
Unripe jack carpels: 2 kg
Fish: 250 gm
Cabbage: 200 gm
Leeks (tender): 200 gm
Beans: 200 gm
Carrots: 200 gm
Green chillies: 10 g
Pepper powder: 3 gm
Garlic: 25 gm
Crushed chillies: A few
Curry leaves: A few
Onions: 50 gm
Rice: 200 gm (optional)
Salt: To taste
Method: Chop the jackfruit carpels into small pieces. Steam carpels for about four to five minutes. Keep this separately. Next steam finely chopped cabbage, bean, leaks and carrots for two minutes. The vegetables have to be steamed separately. Deep fry the fish and cut into small pieces. Add salt and pepper and keep aside.
Heat a little oil in the pan. When the oil is hot add garlic, curry leaves and onions. Once it turns golden brown strain into a pan and add crushed chillies.
Now add pepper powder and salt to the steamed vegetables. If required, add 250 grams of boiled rice.
Finally, add all the ingredients to the boiled jack carpels and mix thoroughly without breaking the pieces. Add the boiled rice as well. Kotthu is now ready.
Jack seed flour: 750 g
Rice flour: 250 g
Sugar: 750 g
Pepper powder: 2 g
Salt: To taste
Method: Heat the jack seed powder in a dry pan on a low fire for a few minutes until it turns light brown. Heat the rice flour too separately in the same manner. Boil the sugar with four cups of water until it melts completely. Remove from the fire, add a little powdered pepper and salt and keep aside a little syrup.
Now mix the jack seed flour and the rice flour keeping aside a small amount. Gradually add the mixed flour to the syrup little by little. Add the syrup left aside as well to make a mixture of thick consistency. Shape into several balls by placing a handful of the mix on the palm and cover each ball with the leftover flour. Aggala is ready for consumption.
Jack seed flour: Wash the jack seeds and then dry them. Heat the seeds in a pot on a low fire. When the seeds are hot their outer covering should be removed. This needs to be done carefully so that the bran of the seeds is not removed. The seeds should then be powdered with a mortar and pestle or any other apparatus. Two kilos of the seeds yield two kilos of flour. The flour thus obtained should be kept on a low fire for about one hour, stirring continuously.
Recipes documented by: Savistri, Colombo
Resource Persons: Nanda Udaththawa, Vanitha Srama Nikethanaya
Assistance: K.P. Somalatha, Savisthri