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Office-bearers of the different panchayat committees of Changadi Koottam

When jobs grow on coconut trees

Shree Padre, Kasaragod

Published: Feb. 29, 2024
Updated: Feb. 29, 2024

FOUR farmers in Kasaragod district of Kerala had a problem. Between them they had 1,000 coconut trees and time was running out to harvest the coconuts. No matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t find the skilled labour to climb the trees and bring the coconuts down. If they waited any longer, the coconuts would be past their prime, fall to the ground and perhaps rot or get gnawed by animals.

It was then that, by word of mouth, they learned of an association of coconut harvesters called Changadi Koottam, which in Malayalam means team of friends.

Contact was established and on a cool morning at 7 am, 80 coconut harvesters on bikes and in cars zoomed into the fields of the four farmers. They wore uniforms and carried tree-climbing equipment. They split into groups and began climbing the coconut trees. In just 90 minutes, they had harvested all the coconuts from 1,000 trees, perhaps setting a world record!

Started two years ago, Changadi Koottam has evolved into a formal association based in Kasaragod district. It has more than 300 members. They are loosely banded together. They have no office or common number. Instead, the members stay networked with one another and, on receiving assignments, rally others into teams.  Despite the lack of an organizational presence, the harvesters are known for their spirited efficiency and can-do orientation. They share a work culture and code.

It is not uncommon to find professional coconut harvesting services in Kerala where unorganized labour  is both expensive and in short supply. But Changadi Koottam is likely the largest such service. Despite its almost informal structure it has created an identity for itself by turning up when needed and getting a job done superfast.

Changadi Koottam can harvest a whopping 8,000 to 10,000 trees a day! According to one estimate, they harvest 240,000 trees and make more than Rs 7 crore in a year.

Mani Kuttikol, 37, is the founder of Changadi Koottam. It was his idea and he shaped the group from scratch. He is a small farmer with a little less than an acre on which he grows areca nut and coconut.

He is also employed by the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (CPCRI) in Kasaragod. He has been working there for the past 13 years and his current responsibility is to facilitate pollination and tasks that  require coconut tree climbing. Kuttikol has studied up to Class 12.

Women make up a small percentage of coconut harvesters

Kuttikol was always public-spirited and keen on social service since a young age. He got the idea of starting a labour bank to help farmers battling labour shortages and he discussed it at length with his friends — Vijayan, Rajesh and Sukumaram. The idea of a labour bank morphed into organizing a coconut harvesters’ group called Changadi Koottam on WhatsApp. 

Kuttikol takes his name from his village and it was from there that the first 40 coconut harvesters came. By May 2021, the group’s membership had risen to 70. In January 2021, after a large meeting, Kuttikol and his friends registered Changadi Koottam under the Societies Registration Act. A membership fee of Rs 500 per member was fixed. The association has 10 panchayat-level committees. Harvesters who have joined have come to hear about the group from others or through  posts on social media such as Facebook.

Changadi Koottam has different categories of harvesters.  Some have been in this line of work for as long as 20 years. Then there are harvesters who have been trained by the Coconut Development Board (CDB) and others who have learnt on the job. Many of them use a cable device for climbing. Around 100 use  the traditional loop, made of coir or plastic bags. A small number also harvest and spray areca nut trees.

Through Changadi Koottam, many have found regular work and income. Among its members are Gulf returnees and graduates. But mostly there are undergraduates and those with a school education. Kuttikol’s assessment is that out of 300 members, around 50 also work in areca nut gardens. Around 150 have been trained by the CDB. There are six women harvesters.



The money is good. Depending on the number of hours put in, it varies between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,500, per day. The harvesters start early to avoid the mid-day heat.  By  7 am they are in the coconut plantations and are usually through in four hours by around 11 am.  They charge Rs 50 per tree. An experienced harvester can bring down coconuts from 10 trees in an hour. If the worksite isn’t far, harvesters are home for lunch. 

The service has made life easier for coconut farmers. Pramod Cherippady who lives in Kandangali near Payyannur is a schoolteacher and coconut farmer with 400 coconut trees. “For the past two or three years, it’s become easier for me to get my coconuts harvested,” he says. Earlier he would have to take a day’s leave from school to get his coconuts harvested. If the harvester didn’t turn up, his leave would be wasted.

Contrastingly, the Changadi Koottam team is organized and dependable. They turn up on time without fail, he says. Instead of one or two harvesters, a team of about seven or eight arrive. “I book them about a week in advance,” says Cherippady. “Not just me but most coconut farmers in my area are happy with the service. We don’t face a scarcity of harvesters now.”

The Eleri panchayat in Kasaragod district has a big coconut farm with 2,500 trees. “We used to face an acute shortage of harvesters. So, we would harvest our coconuts only twice a year. Now we just call the Changadi Koottam team. They turn up at the right time. Three people finish the work in about 10 days. Each worker harvests coconuts from 60 to 70 trees a day. Now we harvest our coconut crop four times a year,” says K. Bhaskara Nair, caretaker of the farm. 

Changadi Koottam members themselves call up Nair when the harvesting time approaches. If there is a shortage of staff to collect and transport the coconuts to the farmer’s home, the harvesters cut short their work to ensure the coconuts reach their destination. For long-distance assignments, the harvesters charge petrol expenses.

Sethumadhavan, a farmer in Kowdichar near Puttur in Karnataka, says, “I have only 125 coconut trees. Changadi Koottam is my regular harvesting team now. They do the work very professionally. Before harvesting, they clean the tree crown properly. They love their profession. If only one worker comes, he stays here till he finishes harvesting all the trees.  Sometimes two or three workers turn up and complete the assignment in one day. They also do pest control activities.”

In Kasaragod and its neighbouring districts, farmers plant pepper vines along the trunk of the coconut tree. This is a hindrance for harvesters who use the cable device.  Sethumadhavan too has such trees. He gives the team an aluminium ladder and support staff to handle it.  The harvester can then climb the ladder carrying his device and use it when he reaches the top of the ladder. Though the process takes extra time and labour, the pepper vines do not suffer damage.



The district committee of Changadi Koottam has 21 members. It has a president, secretary, vice-president, joint secretary, treasurer and 16 executive members.

Kuttikol is the president, Binu Balal the secretary, Jainendran V.R. the vice-president, Mohanan Kalakkara the joint secretary and Surendran Pookkayam the treasurer.

This is a profession that requires a sense of adventure and fearlessness. Accidents and danger constantly shadow climbers. There isn’t just the fear of falling from a tree or getting injured cutting coconuts with a sickle. A harvester can be fatally stung by wasps who build their nests on coconut trees.

It is teamwork that has generated enthusiasm and good vibes

Changadi Koottam is striving hard to insure all its members. The association creates awareness about insurance policies and helps with the paperwork. Not all workers have opted for insurance, though. Those who get injured while working are given immediate financial help from Changadi Koottam’s own funds.



How does this association book orders, assign them to workers and ensure customer satisfaction? That too without an office, or staff or a common number?

They do not need all this because the system is fully decentralized. Most harvesters have years of experience. They have their own customers with whom they have good relations. Their customers continue to call them for work. The harvester either carries out the assignment on his own or sets up a team, depending on the customer’s requirement.

Surprisingly, this decentralized system doesn’t affect the smooth functioning of the organization.

The strength of the organization is its team spirit. It doesn’t leave room for missteps. When a customer calls up, harvesters ask for details such as distance, number of trees, when the work is to be finished and so on.  If the receiver of the call can manage the job on his own, he gives dates. If he requires more staff, he arranges for it and then calls back the customer.

The nature of the job is such that Changadi Koottam members prefer WhatsApp to making phone calls. The reason is that they need to share messages with a large group. For instance, a harvester posts: “We have 500 trees that need to be harvested. Work has to be finished in a week. Those who are nearby and free contact me.” Another one messages: “A farmer in Uduma wants 200 trees harvested urgently in a day. Those who can do this job please call this number.”

“Harvesting workers used to work in their individual capacity before our association started. There was no interaction between them. The concept of team work was alien to them,” says Kuttikol. That has altered completely.

Since Changadi Koottam started, the trend is more towards job-sharing. If an assignment is too onerous for a harvester, he invites others to join. All that workers have to do is to regularly look up messages in the WhatsApp group. They get work instantly without much effort.

To strengthen the organization and decentralize their work even further Changadi Koottam has formed committees in 10 panchayats. Another two are in the pipeline. Each committee has its own WhatsApp group.

Aneesh Barotty is secretary of the Bedagam panchayat committee which was formed just a year ago. The committee began with 40 members and now has 58. Barotty says more people are keen to join. His first task is to bring them under insurance cover.

Kunhikrishnan, 51, is secretary of the Kodom Bellur panchayat committee. “The farmer has to simply contact one of our members. We dispatch workers within two days. Ever since our committee got going, work has increased considerably within the panchayat,” he says. The district joint secretary of Changadi Koottam, Mohanan Kalakkara,  is also secretary of Kuttikol’s committee. He has an areca nut garden of 1.5 acres. When he started coconut harvesting 13 years ago, harvesters were very rare.  Kalakkara underwent training, hoping to be able to harvest his own nuts. He has a scooter, a bike, a car and he has constructed a new house after taking a loan of Rs 35 lakh.

“Before we started our association, many of us were worried that other harvesters might act smart and cause us to lose customers. But, in fact, the reverse happened. There is more than enough work for everyone. And it is team work which has become popular and risen in value,” he says. Orders are happily passed around. So, farmers don’t have to wait for someone to come and bring down their coconuts.

“Team work generates enthusiasm and positive vibes on worksites. Instead of a single person harvesting coconuts for four days all alone, it makes sense for a four-member team to go and finish the work in a day,” he says.



Meet some of the harvesters. T. Suresh of Palakundu is 38 years old. He has studied up to Class 10. He used to work for a civil contractor before he trained to become a coconut harvester. He says it changed his life.

Ramesh Nellikatte transports his coconuts

Suresh bought a scooter two years ago and he has already repaid the loan he took to buy it. “I work 300 days a year. I have about 200 regular farmers as customers. On an average, I earn Rs 40,000 per month,” he says. Twelve years ago, he took a loan of Rs 8 lakh to construct a 900-square-foot house, which he has repaid. He has savings of around Rs 2 lakh in the bank. “I’m happy,” he says proudly.

K. Jalajakshi is 42 years old. She learnt coconut harvesting 13 years ago. Her husband works in a hotel. They live in Aramanganam village near Kanhangad. Jalajakshi was always adventurous. She worked as a coolie earlier and also cleaned wells with a rope tied to her waist.

Four years ago, she took a loan of Rs 85,000 to buy a scooter. She too has repaid her loan. She leaves her home at around 5.30 am and doesn’t mind travelling one or two hours to reach her worksite. 

Jalajakshi has studied till Class 10. She is more comfortable with voice messages on WhatsApp. If she gets a work order in English her children demystify it for her. “I have bought a scooter, constructed my 1,000-sq-ft house and I’m providing a good education to my children, thanks to being a coconut harvester,” she says. She took a Rs 16-lakh loan to build her house. They got Rs 4 lakh as government aid through the panchayat. She has repaid her bank loan.

Forty-year-old Binu Balal is a graduate and secretary of Changadi Koottam. “This job is better than a government one,” he says. He did pass a public service commission exam but he says he didn’t have the Rs 50,000 they asked for as a bribe for the job. After trying his luck with small-time jobs, he trained to become a coconut harvester.

Initially, he says, people used to make fun of his profession. He too became self-conscious and would accept assignments far from home so that people in his locality wouldn’t know. That was like a bad dream, he says. He took a loan of Rs 22 lakh and built a house. Five years ago, he bought a Maruti Alto. All thanks to coconut harvesting, he says.

 Forty-five-year-old Satheeshan T. Kuttippram used to drive taxis and buses before going to the Gulf. He returned during the Covid pandemic and couldn’t find a job. Finally, he opted for coconut harvesting which he describes as a safe job that brings good returns. All through Covid it enabled him to earn a living. He is one of the few who uses a safety hook while climbing coconut trees, a device he is trying to popularize amongst his co-workers.

The advantage of coconut harvesting is that it just needs a few hours and therefore frees up harvesters to pursue another profession as well and earn more.

Anil Barotty becomes an auto rickshaw driver from 4 pm onwards and earns an extra Rs 300 on average every day. Rajesh Ayampara till recently used to rear goats post-lunch, earning Rs 1 lakh every year.

In the afternoons, Biju Ananthapura runs a fabrication business with two assistants. They make window frames, sliding doors, kitchen accessories and more using aluminium and other materials.

Some members have specialized in other aspects of the coconut business. Ramesh Nellikatte has become a wholesale tender coconut supplier to shops in his locality. Sino Jose is an expert in cutting unwanted coconut trees or pulling trees away to prevent them from falling on houses. 

He has a team of five to six assistants and charges Rs 300 to Rs 3,000 per tree, depending on the nature of the work. Madhava Badiadka also harvests tender mangoes.                                    

Santhosh P.T. of Chamundikunnu, the publicity committee chairman of Changadi Koottam, says it is social media which has really helped the group spread the word. “Before we began using the internet and posting on Facebook, we were not well known. We now dream of expanding our association across the state.”

Changadi Koottam’s areca nut harvesters find work in the harvesting season from December to March. Workers like Ashraf Nekraje and Abhishek Cherakkappara climb areca nut trees to spray fungicide during the monsoon. It’s difficult to find skilled areca nut tree climbers so there is more demand for such workers. During the areca nut harvesting season, they don’t get time to harvest coconuts.



A new development is the adverse effect of climate change on coconut trees. For the first time after the last monsoon the group found work orders reducing. “We never experienced this sort of crisis earlier,” say the harvesters. Also, market prices for coconuts have been on a downslide, they say. The reason could be that farmers don’t get their coconuts harvested on time. So mature nuts fall on the ground and are eaten up by wild boars. It’s a loss for the farmer and probably reduces market supply. 

Another issue which concerns coconut harvesters is the lack of social recognition. Theirs is a noble profession which is benefitting the farmer community, they point out.

“Though we earn well, youngsters aren’t attracted to our profession because of lack of social status. They think they won’t get suitable brides,” says Thalakkara. An elderly coconut harvester said tartly that youngsters prefer working in malls and car showrooms because they can then dress well and lead an easier life. Another issue that confronts the group is alcoholism. Kuttikol says they are trying to wean members away from alcohol but without much success.          

Coconut is Kerala’s main crop. The state has thousands of coconut harvesters. Unfortunately, they don’t get the facilities they deserve. There is no government registry of harvesters. They don’t have provisions like provident fund, or any form of social security.

Says Satheeshan T. Kuttippuram, “The government hasn’t considered provident fund facilities for us. Toddy tappers get insurance and welfare fund facilities. These facilities should be extended to coconut harvesters too. There is a limit to how much we can support our members if and when they have an accident. If they are hospitalized for months altogether, the government should support them.”

So far, the CDB has trained 1,685 harvesters in Kasaragod district. In Kerala, altogether 26,684 have been trained. The all-India number is 65,000. 

But after training, the harvesters don’t get the handholding they need from the board. Collaborating government organizations like the Krishi Vijnan Kendras have also not given any thought to this. An efficient handholding programme, perhaps by NGOs or farmer organizations, might attract more young people into this profession. Nobody knows how many of the 26,000 people trained in Kerala are actually practising this profession.

Recently, the board started a call centre to provide interested farmers the phone numbers of coconut harvesters. They carried out a survey to build a network but they could find only 1,200 persons willing to do the work!

To encourage more women to join the women’s community network, Kudumbashree, the CBD along with the Krishi Vijnan Kendras, and a few other organizations are conducting training workshops for women. At Kendras, after training, each candidate is provided a free climbing device. In south Kerala, there are more women becoming coconut harvesters compared to Kasaragod where only a few women have joined.    

For the past two years, Changadi Koottam has been organizing a get-together called Kutumba Sangamam so that families of members can get introduced, bond over their joys and sorrows, and honour their members.

Last year, the get-together was held on Pallikere beach near Kasaragod. Eight senior coconut harvesters who had worked for more than 25 years were honoured. This year, they went to an island resort called Pudiya Thurutt Eco-tourism Village. They spent the day singing, dancing, honouring senior harvesters and enjoying a lunch together. Six women harvesters were felicitated.

By bringing coconut harvesters under one roof, providing aid to injured workers, and arranging insurance policies, Changadi Koottam has increased communication between members, boosted their confidence and silently raised their social status. New entrants are far less hesitant to stay on in the profession. And there is work and earnings throughout the year — an example the rest of rural India could follow.


Changadi Koottam contact: Mani Kuttikol, President – 6282 383 826 / 94967 02323


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