May 22, 2008

life in general: tender coconut water!

Last month, I worked on a story on tender coconuts for the magazine I work for. It was an idea that came to me in March when I was drinking tender coconut water, as I often do, at one of the
street-side retailer near my office. The final outcome of all that is what I share below. The story talks of coconut orchards (or coconut groves as some would prefer to call it). To your left is a photo I clicked of one such large coconut orchard when landing at Coimbatore airport last month (when I had gone to report on Tirupur and Coimbatore for an industrial slowdown story... see the second post prior to this one). I can't say for sure whether this orchard had trees bearing tender coconuts or hard coconuts but I know that after landing at Coimbatore and heading to Tirupur by road I halted near a village to drink tender coconut water at a street-side vendor and he said it came from one of the local orchards in Coimbatore district itself.

Here is the story I wrote:


The business in one of nature's most valuable gifts has exciting dynamics.

In the hot afternoon sun of 11 April, the steady summer breeze was swaying about 180 trees in Krishna Prakash's five acres of coconut palm orchard in Mandya district in southern Karnataka. At that exact moment, a bright orange-coloured truck carrying about 6,000 tender coconuts was nearing Bombay in its 28-hour and 1,200 km long trip from the Maddur APMC (agricultural produce market committee) mandi in Mandya to green tender coconut wholesaler K.B. Beeravunni's area of operation in Andheri in Bombay.

The truck reached Beeravunni at midnight. Two of Beeravunni's men boarded it and in the next four hours of the night they took it for delivery along seven western suburbs from Bandra to Goregaon covering 20 kms. They unloaded all the 6,000 tender coconuts at 30 streetside retail outlets. Beeravunni caters to around 100 retailers but that day he had got phone calls from 30 for replenishment of their stock. Some of them retail outlet were delivered 100-150 tender coconuts while some got 200-250, and it took 5-10 minutes to unload at each outlet. In the night golden lights of Bombay's streets, none of the retailers were present at the time of delivery but Beeravunni's men would cover the unloaded fruits with the retailers'tarapaulin sheet.

In the morning the 30 retailers came to their outlets and sold 60-90 per cent of their tender coconuts by late evening. The sweltering humid heat of Bombay's summer ensured that. These retailers' stock got replenished next night by Beeravunni or some other wholesaler's truck that came from Maddur.

BW takes a look at the business of tender coconuts in the country. Due to their concentrated populations the cities are the largest market for tender coconuts. Green coconuts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are best suited for extracting oil while that of Karnataka are tender and has more water content.

Bombay is the largest market in the country currently accounting for around 170,000 tender coconuts every day during the peak months of March to June and mid-September to mid-November and between 80,000 and 130,000 during other months. At an estimated average per-coconut retail sale price of Rs 15-16 during the peak months and Rs 11-12 during the other months the total turnover in a year in Bombay would currently be between Rs 53 crore and Rs 69 crore. Maddur APMC agents and Bombay's wholesalers further estimate that Bombay accounts for 40-50% of all India sales. The estimated national retail sales of tender coconut in a year, therefore, would be between Rs 106 crore and Rs 172 crore.

There are 45-50 tender coconut wholesalers in Bombay catering to 2,000-3,000 retailers. Beeravunni gets his hired truck every second day during peak season and twice at other times. Some of them deal in quantities like Beeravunni while some of them are bigger transporting in 1-2 trucks every day during the peak season. There are two types of trucks used – the regular sized one that are licensed to weigh maximum 10 tons carry 5,600-6,000 tender coconuts and the longer truck that have a maximum licensed capacity of 15 tons carry 8,500-9,300 pieces.

The dynamics. "The last few years have not seen much growth in income but it has been steady," says Beeravunni. "The business has been recovering from a slump two years ago when a pest attack caused extensive damage to the coconut palms in Mandya and other places." Mandya APMC's figures bear this out – 49,560 metric tonnes were transported out in 2005 while it was lower at 43,003 in 2006. It picked up only last year at 56,568 metric tonnes.

The Mandya district's hundreds of acres of coconut palm orchards not only grow the most number of tender coconuts in the country but also figure in the top growing regions in Asia. At an estimated average weight of 1.6 kg per tender coconut (big-sized ones weigh around 1.9 kg while the small-sized ones weigh around 1.1 kg) Mandya's 2007 produce translated into 35.35 million pieces. Of this, about 26 million got transported to Bombay, and the rest to Bangalore, Hubli, Pune, Thane and elsewhere in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

"Nine out of every 10 trucks during December to June come from Mandya and the one remaining truck comes from Mangrol in Junagadh district in western Gujarat," says Beeravunni. Herein, lays an interesting twist in the story. The Mandya tender coconuts plucked from the orchards in end-June and upto September-October tend to loose their green skin colour and become black from the outside within 2-3 days of storage.

The water inside, however, does not spoil. "But consumers think the black-skinned ones are spoilt and don't buy them and so we shift our purchases to Gujarat at that time," says Beeravunni. The tender coconuts from Mangrol do not suffer from this problem. From July to October, therefore, Bombay's consumption demand, which anyways reduces by 25-40 per cent, is met from Mongrol. From November to February, the winter months, the demand is half.

Conscious tender coconut water drinkers can notice the difference in taste – the ones from Mandya are sweet and contains more of tender milky kernel (or malai) while the Mongrol ones are mildly salty and has much less malai content. It is not surprising because Mandya district in central Karnataka far away from the coast while Mongrol is right along the Porbandar coast of the Arabian Sea in western Gujarat. Soil conditions cause the change in taste.

But some factors are secular in nature. A severe pest attack in 2005 and 2006 on tender coconut palms was from an airborne pest and it coconut palms across the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and others.

Mongrol is about 1,000 kms away from Bombay. When Bombay is picking its tender coconunts from Mandya, Mongrol supplies more to its regular markets in Gujarat, Delhi, Punjab and Haryana.

The economics. At the coconut palm orchardist's end the cost-dynamics are noteworthy. Each tree in Krishna Prakash over 180 fruit-bearing trees in his five acre orchard in Mandya yields fruit three times in the year. "In this region, one coconut palm seedling takes seven years to grow into a proper fruit-bearing tree," says Prakash. One seedling costs Rs 100. The costs an orchardist like Prakash incurs during these years are on manure (organic at times and chemical at times) and labour, and these can add up to Rs 250 per month.

The cost of fertile land would vary across states but most orchardists like Prakash own their land since the last 30-40 years at the least. "From a matured tree I get 50-70 tender coconuts in every fruitation," says Prakash. "The highest I have ever got from the local APMC agent who comes to collect the tender coconuts directly from my land is Rs 3.50 per fruit." Prakash's 180-odd trees yields fruits three times a year but there are orchardists whose trees gives yield upto six times a year.

A big-sized tender coconut costs the Bombay consumer anywhere between Rs 15 and Rs 20 currently, up by 30-50 per cent from Rs 9-13 just two years ago. But in this period Prakash has seen his per fruit realisation fluctuate between Rs 3 and Rs 3.50 only, that is, in a range of 10-20 per cent only.

The largest margins in the tender coconut business are made by the APMC agents some of whom, depending on the state and the district, are also politically connected. This is partly because they receive their APMC agent licenses from the state government. That is also the reason why no one hears the orchardists' plea with the state governments to hike the government-determined minimum prices at the various mandis. There are 15-20 agents in Maddur APMC and about 20-25 agents in Mongrol that make up for more than 75 per cent of all tender coconut trades in the country.

The relationship between APMC agents and the orchardists vary depending on size and need of the latter. If an orchardist is small having one acre or less and in need of advance money for personal expenditure or a marriage in the family then a APMC agent would pay him a lumpsum of Rs 1-10 lakh and fix in advance the rate at which he will buy future harvests of the orchardist. This rate is invariably a low rate and worse, the orchardist gets the same lower rate for 3-7 years, depending on the original agreement, even if the rate to the Bombay consumer doubles.

The next powerful element in the business chain is the city wholesaler who also needs to have strong local contacts, some of them political or municipal, to survive in the business. They took make a neat packet from the business although the growth in income has not been much for them either in the last few years. Streetside retailers take their relevant cut too in the chain, but are generally not as well placed as the wholesalers. "Even on the hottest days when there is a rush of people to drink the tender coconut water, there is a limit to how much I can earn," says Anna, a retailer in Kandivli who, interestingly, puts 50-70 tender coconuts on his bicycle at a time and roams from area to area to sell. "The cutting of the hard nut and then fleshing out the malai takes a fixed amount of time."

The cash-flow management is interesting. At times the city wholesaler has to pay the APMC agent upfront for the produce that is loaded by the agent in the trucks. At other times credit is offered for 1-2 months and is usually a continuous rolling process. The wholesalers, in turn, collect payment from the retailers days, sometimes weeks, after a delivery.

No books of accounts are prepared except for some loose sheets of papers in which the wholesaler details the number of tender coconuts supplied to each retailer at different days. The payments made are in cash, except in the case of some wholesaler-APMC agent dealings where the wholesaler deposits cash directly in the bank account of the APMC agent. "Most of us have been in this business for around 30 years and the trust between all of us is good," says Beeravunni.

The good and the not-so-good. In the end, the tender coconut water business is among the most dynamic in the un-organised sector. It is also the only trade in fruits where the end-produce is in liquid form. The end-consumer does not have to do anything to extract the juice out of the fruit. The juice is in ready form ready to be drunk.

Tender coconut is also perhaps the only fruit that is recommended the most by nutritionists and doctors, and one of the major factors in the large consumption demand in the ailing populations of cities.

But there is a flip side. The weight of the water and the malai inside the tender coconut is less than a quarter of the weight of the outer shell. These heavy shells, in millions of quantity, go to the cities' garbage dumps and add to the problem of land requirement for those dumps. The government nor the private industry has thought it fit to manufacture from the husk of the empty tender coconut shells an end-product that can be used as soft wood.

The transportation from more than 1,000 kms away by diesel trucks also leads to a high carbon footprint. However, it is still ok if one compares the carbon footprint of other nutritious fruits that too travel thousands of kms to reach the cties.. Let's drink tender coconut water to that!


Atul Shah said...

Congrats ! Hats off to you & your team.

An excellent Reaserch Project.
Best wishes & Blessings
atul shah

Rajesh Gajra said...

Thank you, Atul.