Quality, sustainability and longevity in coir production
By Joanna Wood*
Looking out of the plane as you land at Bandaranaike International Airport north of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, you see coconut palm plantations everywhere.
Hardy surprising, as you’re on the southern fringe of what’s known as the ‘coconut triangle’ on the west coast of this large tropical island set in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka is the fourth largest producer of coconuts in the world, and also hosts the oldest research station devoted to coconut R&D, established in 1928 in the colonial British period of the island’s history.
The headquarters of Botanicoir, the company’s processing plant and drying facilities, are all close to the Coconut Research Station in the centre of the coconut triangle. A three-day visit to the company in August gave me a detailed insight into the reason that Botanicoir’s cocopeat growing medium products are considered by leading UK soft fruit and salad crop growers to be the very best available.
Seeing first-hand how a by-product of the coconut husk industry, itself a by-product of the edible part of the coconut, is turned into a first rate horticultural growing medium for professional growers made for a fascinating journey.
It’s easy to dismiss Sri Lanka as still a developing country when experiencing the chaotic and crazy driving styles on all roads – except the few toll motorways – and also seeing the unplanned development in many areas. However, it’s an economy in transition with a burgeoning tourist industry and a stable government.
There may be a somewhat laid back attitude in general but, by contrast, Botanicoir stands out as being a professional operation on all levels. They implement a drive for excellence using quality control measures at all stages of the process of turning cocopeat into Botanicoir slabs and other products. Indeed, many European companies could learn a lot from the way Kalum and Sam Balasuriya and their team run the company.
Some 10 years of experience of supplying UK growers and listening to feedback from them, in addition to total attention to detail, is very much at the heart of the success of Botanicoir’s products.
Professional growers require a reliable consistent product which delivers a perfect root environment for their crops to thrive. And, as Kalum says: “Our aim is to produce the number one premium product and ship it from this country to our customers around the world. We never cut corners.”
All through the processing of the cocopeat, which requires a separate processing plant site on an industrial scale, there is attention to detail to soak, wash and buffer the product before it goes into the drying phase on large concrete drying floors. Strict measures are taken to avoid any local environmental pollution and the cleaned up water irrigates and fertilises the surrounding coconut plantations. This operation has been so successful, that where applied, coconut yields have doubled.
Kalum is emphatic that Botanicoir’s job is to produce “the best product giving growers the least trouble”. Customers can be assured that this philosophy also extends to avoiding environmental impact in Sri Lanka. Investment in a top quality water treatment plant to deal with all effluent from the processing plant is just one example of caring for the local environment. This is a family company which stays true to its ideals and is growing at a sustainable pace.
At the company headquarters, which are also the production facility, quality control is in place at every stage, from testing the coir for EC and nutrient content in the laboratory, to hand checking every plastic sleeve. A sample of 30 slabs per container is checked in a re-hydration trough to make sure they reach the specified depth.
People are at the heart of any successful company and establishing a professional culture at all levels is vital. All Botanicoir employees, including the factory floor production team, are given regular training sessions with outside trainers who have also been trained by international companies such as Toyota.
In the factory, where everyone seems to work at a cracking pace, job designations are identifiable via coloured tee shirts which also bear the company logo. Health and safety is rigidly adhered to and, as this is a very dusty environment, everyone wears high quality face masks and there are shower facilities on site for use at the end of a shift.
Good staff rest room and eating facilities are available, and there’s a water purification unit on site to save on the need for plastic bottled water provision. Everything I observed demonstrates why this company produces the best quality product and is here to stay.
*Since her time in ADAS at Efford EHS researching new methods of extending the strawberry season with raised beds, polytunnels and everbearers in the 1970’s, Joanna has taken a great interest in and has written articles about many of the new developments in the soft fruit industry. She writes for all the leading publications and is well-known to many major growers.