The finer details of the spread might create the best mats the world has ever seen and could change the character of the coir industry in the coming years.
In the eloquent narrative of natural fibers, none is knottier than coir, the golden thread made from coconut husk. While its richer cousins like cotton, hemp, and flax have flourished over time, coir has stayed several steps behind, slowly spinning a story of struggle and survival.
Now, thanks to a series of measures by Kerala, the world leader in the coir sector, that is just about to change. On the agenda is a spread of new products and even newer machines to make the yarn. The finer details of the spread might create the best mats the world has ever seen and could change the character of the coir industry in the coming years.
Traditional to Modern India accounts for more than two-thirds of the global volume of coir and its products. With its 580 km-long coasts fringed by palm trees, Kerala, which in Malayalam means the “land of coconuts”, accounts for 61% of India’s coconut production and 85% of coir products. Every day, tens of thousands of women in Alappuzha, the coir capital of the world, carry heaps of coconut husk, the covering of the nut, feeding machines that turn them into a thread. According to the Coir Board, which functions under the Union ministry for micro, small and medium enterprises, India exported coir and coir products worth Rs 1,630 crore last year.
More than half-a-million workers in the coir industry — two-thirds of them in Kerala — have contributed to more than three-fold growth in coir exports in the last decade, from a mere Rs 473 crore in 2005. The domestic market is estimated at Rs 3,500 crore.
At the Kerala State Coir Corporation’s factory in Alappuzha, Sujatha B is dusting heaps of dyed coir fiber for making mats. Sujatha has been working in the same factory for more than 26 years, a job her parents did earlier. “I get Rs 250 a day for working from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm,” says the 56-year-old worker, who has to care for her unemployed husband, a heart patient.
About 20 km away in Kanhikuzhi village near Cherthala, Thankachi Bhanudas is spinning yarn from a bunch of coir fiber firmly deposited in her lap. “I get Rs 195 from the cooperative society for making 16 kg of coir,” says Bhanudas
In an initiative launched by the state government four years ago, home-based workers like Bhanudas get another Rs 91 directly into their bank accounts.
Measures like e payment as well as new spinning machines running on electricity have reduced the lack of appeal and drudgery associated with the coir sector. At the Coir Kerala 2016, an annual international industry event on coir and other natural fibers held in Alappuzha in February, a brand new automatic machine for spinning yarn, displayed in the national pavilion, claimed capacity for producing 35 kg of yarn compared with 16 kg in simple motorized machines currently used by workers.
Another new defibering machine promised to process husk from 9,000 coconuts a day. A new low-cost, automatic power loom is expected to help workers, who now stand for eight hours every day, making carpets with their bare hands.
For decades, Kerala’s coir industry, located in the Communist strongholds of Alappuzha and Cherthala, had delayed the inevitable transition from traditional to modern sector, mainly due to the fear of workers losing jobs. “In the coming years, India’s coir industry will transform from a traditional industry with low-value products to an innovative industry,” says Raul Fangueiro, an expert in natural fibers at the Portugal’s University of Minho.
After the proposal of International Yoga Day by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, Coirfed, the apex organization of coir cooperative societies in Kerala, designed a new mat for yoga exercises. The sleek coir yoga mats were the first thing that drew the attention of German business partners Ebrahimi and Elmira Babalou at the international pavilion of Coir Kerala. “Coir mats are far cheaper compared with Persian silk rugs,” said Ebrahimi and Elmira, who are both of Iranian origin.
Bhopal-born Neeta Lakshmi Singh arrived at Coir Kerala for the first time this year from Oregon in the US, to look for new coir products and place more orders for coir pith, a sensation among organic farmers in North America. “Coir pith is transforming the way Americans are farming,” says Singh, who runs the environment-conscious Cosmic Connections in Oregon with her husband and agronomist Ajit Nehra. According to her, in indoor gardening, coir pith is slowly emerging as a healthy replacement for peat moss which, she says, can be toxic to the crops.
Threads of Change Industry insiders say the next decade is going to be crucial for the coir industry. Until 10 years ago, retting (soaking coconut husk in water for over six months to soften it) was the most common method to produce the best quality fiber. Worries over water pollution ended the era of retting, which has been banned by the pollution control board. Defibering was done by women workers, who constantly beat the husk to create quality fiber. That too is going with the advent of defibering machines.
Next to go will be the spinning wheel, to which the fiber is fed to make the golden yarn. Power looms of varying capacities are slated to replace handlooms for making carpets, mats, and geotextiles (used to prevent soil erosion).
“Natural fibers are becoming important engineering materials for different applications in the automotive, building, architecture and leisure sectors,” says Fangueiro. The Indian coir industry has a job at hand in leading the change. And after a long slow and steady race, coir may be getting ready for the marathon run.