Vegetable growing in Sri Lanka

05 Oct 2018

Sri Lanka Blog vegetables market

Seeing another country’s vegetable growing industry first hand is not only fascinating, but it gives a point for comparison with our industry in New Zealand. 

I recently travelled to Sri Lanka, and saw that the issues facing Sri Lankan growers are, in many respects, similar to those facing New Zealand growers. Consistent supply of water has been a problem for hundreds of years in Sri Lanka, and that continues to be addressed by extensive storage in massive reservoirs, many of which were built centuries ago. 

Water is particularly vital for paddy field cultivation. Paddy cultivation for rice is a major crop, and essential to feeding the 21.2 million residents of Sri Lanka. This is promoted by the Government’s fertiliser subsidy programme, which is in the process of being renewed for 2018. The subsidy is needed to maintain productivity on soils that have been farmed for many generations. A lesser subsidy is also provided for general vegetable growing.

 The benefits of integrated management systems with a focus on productivity were not evident in Sri Lanka. A wide range of vegetables are grown and sold through local markets; for example, there were more than 10 different varieties of pumpkin on sale, and many vegetables that are not commonly grown commercially in New Zealand.  For the range of vegetables grown, the focus appeared to be more on variety and quality, as opposed to productivity per hectare. This is because a lot of vegetable growing is done by the workers employed by the landowners as a side-line to paddy cultivation or tea production. This results in amazing weekend markets, flooded with fresh produce, and many roadside stalls.

Change is coming, however, with the introduction of supermarket chains that are starting to replace stalls and markets in the large centres. This has resulted in the development of wholesale markets in key growing areas, where growers’ produce is on sold to distributors who move the vegetables to the population centres. As many of these growers are supplementing their main income by growing vegetables on the side,  their produce is purchased by middle operators who take the vegetables to the wholesale market. 

All of this means is that the actual growers are not receiving much income from their growing. They are not achieving the margins required to move into greater productivity.

Having sufficient funds to upscale production will be necessary to feed the 21.2 million people who call Sri Lanka home. There is also the potential to further develop their export industry, which accounted for only US$69.1 million in 2014. From my observations, lifting production to new levels will require significant social change, the introduction of technology and mechanisation, and increased payments to the growers. As with New Zealand there is a reducing number of people willing to work in the fields especially, where the work is largely done by hand. 

This is a significantly different situation to ours in New Zealand, where  vegetable growers focus on productivity per hectare and high-quality produce. But where there are similarities - the need for water storage, increased margins, and new technologies – they are plain and simple.

New Zealand’s system needs evolutionary changes here and there; Sri Lanka’s agricultural changes will need to be revolutionary.

- Mike Chapman, CEO