Giving new spin to familiar yarn

Innovations on to promote coir sector : Coir-hoop vertical gardens were on display at fair

Giving new spin to familiar yarn
It’s not hard to imagine Alappuzha as the permanent venue of a global event showcasing coir and natural fibre products. The coastal town is one of Kerala’s most popular tourist destinations; it is also the state’s coir production hub, a staple backdrop for labour struggles in popular culture till the 1980s.

The town and neighbouring areas still retain the stature but it draws more from the region’s history than recent milestones in production or labourer welfare. At the sixth edition of Coir Kerala which concluded on Friday, history provided a necessary context; a base of tradition to power the sector into times of modern product innovation.

The event organised by Kerala’s Department of Coir Development along with the Department of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, has over its past five editions – all held in Alappuzha – showcased this transition as it brought together the coir and natural fibre industry on an international platform for discussions and prospective business.

Coir Kerala is coordinated by the National Coir Research and Management Institute (NCRMI). The 2016 edition which featured more than 150 buyers from 54 countries is estimated to have generated export and business deals worth about Rs 250 crore. For an industry weighed down by concerns over limited procurement of coconut husk and a slow transition toward mechanised production, the figure points at possibilities. 

Minister for Revenue and Coir Adoor Prakash says the state government’s efforts to accelerate procurement of coconut husk have led to a rise in production, from 25,000 tonnes to 60,000 tonnes a year. The Minister feels that only mechanisation and efforts to innovate will protect Kerala’s coir sector.

At the international pavilion of the trade expo organised as part of Coir Kerala 2016, there were products which reflected this thrust on looking beyond the regular. Along with an array of mats, bags and wall art pieces, there were also coir-hoop vertical gardens and coir-based acoustic panels on display. Rejith K S, representing Bengaluru-based 2M Engineers at the expo, details the making of three-dimensional coir wall panels and traditionally Japanese tatami mats with an Indian touch.

ACCOIR, a brand of acoustic panels with coir as core component, was part of the showcase. The Kerala chapter of the Institute of Indian Interior Designers (IIID) and the NCRMI have collaborated on the product  “The project involved a lot or research and now we are in the process of patenting and branding before the product is introduced to the market. The exposure has been very good; we’ve been getting enquiries and orders are being placed,” says Prashanth Kumar, co-ordinator at IIID.

Research teams from the Automotive Research Association of India, Pune, and the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram, have worked on the panels. The product will be available as 25-mm ceiling panels and 40-mm wall panels in customised architectural finishes.

 The event had participation of 260 registered sellers and exhibitors. Sunil Babu of the Alleppey Small Scale Coir Matting Producers Co-operative Society says he doesn’t mind sharing space at the event’s national pavilion with traders in everything from books to local halwa varieties.

The organisers also lined up cultural shows on the sidelines of the event – “In a way, it’s a celebration of Alappuzha and such inclusive packaging helps in ensuring greater attention and new opportunities for people in the sector,” he says. Sunil hopes that the cheer from new business possibilities is also translated to better compensation for the labourers.

“Work is limited; making things worse, some of the companies also outsource their work to labourers in Tamil Nadu. This region has a traditional base in coir production but it has an ageing workforce now. The young are increasingly moving away from coir production to construction labour,” he says.

The State Government offers a support wage of Rs 300 per day for coir labourers and has also expressed willingness to extend the offer to labourers in the private sector. Minister Prakash says lack of “technical clarity” regarding the number of labourers has been delaying a long-debated wage revision. The government, through its co-operative federations, procures and markets yarn produced by the member societies.

Even as the government rolls out machinery factories and electronic ratts and the coir sector opens up to potential of new thrust areas, including geotextiles, there is also palpable apprehension among the labourers on embracing technology. “Most of it is inherent; there is still fear over a possible loss of livelihood to new technology but many labourers are unable to understand the potential of mechanisation in increasing employment opportunities, especially for women who’ve traditionally had a very strong presence in the sector,” says Mathew, a retired government employee and an old-towner who has seen the industry’s boom years.

There are cues on product diversification to take from what Prof Edwin R P Keijsers, affiliated with a food and bio-based research group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, had to say about practical applications of “unwanted” and “unusable” coconut husk. The expert draws attention to the immense possibilities of discarded husk in sectors including construction and packaging. His team has developed husk-based boards which are water-absorbent and flame-retardant.

Possibilities of product diversification could be the spur for the State government as it plans to ramp up production through state-run corporations and co-operative sectors. Experts in the sector feel the priority has to be on tapping global interest in local potential, while ensuring that a key component – the labourer – is not relegated to the obscurity of tradition.  

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