Interview : Navin Dissanayake

In what ways can further investment in research and development (R&D) enhance the value chain of Sri Lanka’s plantations?

NAVIN DISSANAYAKE: Tea, rubber, coconut and palm oil face severe challenges, which result in low yields, poor productivity and high production costs. Issues include an outdated regulatory framework, deteriorating soils and rural-urban migration that causes skill shortages. In response, plantations must enhance productivity and reduce input costs. We must also offer differentiated products to consumers whose demands are changing. This is a process that involves constant experimentation, innovation and change. Solutions to these problems can be derived mainly from technological advancements, and the performance of crop value chains can be vastly improved with intensified R&D efforts. We need to strengthen the entire innovation system that serves all plantation crops. This necessitates added investments based on a long-term programme.

To what extent can non-traditional cultivation methods reduce the risk of adverse climatic conditions that affect production?

DISSANAYAKE: Production of tea, rubber and coconut is sometimes badly affected by erratic climatic behaviour. Therefore, it is essential to promote climate change adaptation practices. One approach is to extend plantations into non-traditional regions. We have already done this with rubber and the results are very encouraging. Our Moneragala rubber programme has developed over 6000 ha of smallholder farms with financial assistance from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. They are assisting us to develop another 3000 ha. We will slowly move rubber to the Eastern and Northern Provinces.

A second approach is introducing novel agricultural practices to traditional plantation areas. Examples include using drought- and flood-resistant plants, water-saving irrigation systems, and planting techniques that can withstand adverse and changing weather patterns. Crop diversification is yet another method. Some techniques are being tried by our R&D institutes, but it is still too early to quantify the impact of the results. We must enhance the adaptive capacity of plantations and provide certain incentives at the outset until adaptive methods become popular and farmers become climate smart. The risk will always be there as Mother Nature is always a step ahead of us. Still, our research may find significant breakthroughs that would elevate plantation performance to a level that exceeds expectations. In addition, producers themselves may develop their own non-traditional solutions to climate problems. This suggests the need for producers and researchers to work together to develop effective solutions.

How can foreign direct investment (FDI) help plantations overcome bottlenecks?

DISSANAYAKE: Plantations require large investments for technology-driven modernisation and infrastructure upgrades. Since return periods are long, plantations find it difficult to attract sufficient local capital. One reason is the inability of plantations to prepare and market strategic plans to change the status quo, and offer differentiated products in end-user markets. Further, value addition to output is mostly done outside plantations and value added is not reflected in most plantation balance sheets.

We must encourage an investment model that facilitates inward resource transfers, human resource development, technological advancement and local value creation. Plantation lands, built assets and the workforce are national treasures, and our economy must be the priority. FDI should lead to value addition as well as retention. Ultimately, plantation workers must enjoy higher living standards irrespective of commodity prices. We also need to explore the possibility of creating opportunities for FDI in the smallholder segment.