The palmyra palm tree with its wide fan leaves is a distinctive and common sight across Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, thriving in the arid conditions.
Kutty, who goes by only one name, is a “toddy tapper”. Climbing the palms with his clay pot, he collects sap from the flower heads at the top of the great trees, which can grow to more than 30 metres (90ft). The sap is fermented to make toddy, an alcoholic drink also known as palm wine.
He shaves the tips off the flowers, tying the pot’s rope handle in place to collect the fluid. It’s meticulous and risky work.
Afterwards, he takes the precious juice to the collection centre, just like thousands of other toddy tappers. There are about 11 million palmyra or borassus trees dotting the landscape across the country, but despite its many uses, from making brooms to ice-cream, very few were being utilised – until recently.
With such a small market for toddy, co-operatives would cap the amount they bought and the traditional skills of the tappers were being lost, as the sap brought in little profit. These skills were especially neglected in the Jaffna peninsula during the long civil war, which raged between 1983 and 2009.
“I realised the difficulties faced by societies and tappers. I wished to positively change the living standards of toddy tappers, their families, especially young children, while uplifting this marginalised society,” says Shanmuganathan.
“I looked at the existent process and gave my suggestions based on my expertise of the manufacturing process I had learned in Canada to boost and uplift the palmyra industry.”
Within a few years, the industry has transformed. Today, about 4,000 people work as toddy tappers. Quality has drastically improved and manufacturing equipment has been upgraded.
“Our industry was going nowhere. We were only allowed to bring 30 litres a day by the co-operative,” says Kutty.
“This meant my monthly income was around 18,000 Sri Lankan rupees (£70). Shanmuganathan removed the limit on quantity but he insisted on quality. This ensured that only the best was brought in by the tappers. Our income increased to around 190,000 Sri Lankan rupees.
Toddy tappers who were living a hand-to-mouth existence now have a comfortable life
“Toddy tappers who were living a hand-to-mouth existence now have a comfortable life. This has changed many lives, not just for us and our children, but our extended families and our villages.”
Palm tree products are now exported to the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Dubai. “I started with toddy, and within the last three years have expanded to about 80 different products. These include arrack [an alcoholic spirit], jaggery [unrefined sugar], palmyra root crisps, root powder, syrup, and flour,” says Shanmuganathan.
Jekhan Aruliah, co-founder of a Jaffna management consultancy that works with Shanmuganathan, agrees.
“This has not been easy for him. He has had to change the work culture of the palmyra co-operatives, which have been stubbornly stagnant for decades. Palmyra is the iconic tree of the north, he is turning it into a pillar of northern economic success,” he says.
“While uplifting the lives of thousands of families, we are creating an industry which is environmentally friendly and aims for zero waste. We envisage that the growth in the palmyra industry will lead to growth in many other industries […] The ripple effect is huge.”