On a blistering hot day in Ranna, Sri Lanka, MDF partner Aruna Plant Nursery officially announced the opening of the first commercial tissue culture laboratory in the Southern Province.
“Today we finally achieve a dream we have had for a long time,” said Aruna Wijewickrema, the proprietor, addressing the gathered crowd of farmers, sales agents, and government officials. “We are grateful that MDF and the Australian Government helped us to start and set up this laboratory. This will now help us use this technology to improve the crops of the farmers who buy from us.”
Why tissue culture?
The Aruna Tissue Culture Laboratory is the first of its kind in the Southern Province to sell plant saplings produced through tissue culture, a technology that combines sterile condition and meticulous micropropagation to yield strong, more disease-resistant outcomes. The lab will address a key constraint faced by farmers in the region – that of disease and the resulting poor plant health and yield loss. Not only will this positively impact the incomes of thousands of farming households, it will also be a boost for fruit and vegetable exports.
Despite attempts to diversify its export basket beyond traditional products, Sri Lanka has struggled with meeting stringent international quality standards. Given that they are hardier than the average sapling, these tissue culture plants will give the farmers — and Sri Lankan fruit and vegetable exports – a competitive edge. Export-quality food items are also in demand from the tourism industry, which is currently looking to restructure itself in Sri Lanka, aligning better to the needs of the global consumer.
Speaking to the farmers of the vast benefits of tissue culture saplings, Mr. Manjula Nagahawatte, the external tissue culture expert MDF assisted Aruna Plant Nursery in getting onboard, commented: “This has been something I have looked forward to for a long time, but the (Agriculture) Department can’t do it on its own because of resource limitations. It is great to see Aruna doing this, it’s exactly this kind of innovation that is essential for the rural economy.”
“It’s all our girls’ work”
In addition to the consultant, MDF also supported the partner with equipping the lab with the state-of-the-art sterilizing and culture machines required for the process, as well as recruiting staff. Currently, six young lab technicians handle the entire process, all of them girls from the area for whom this is their first job. Said Mr. Nagahawatte, “The technology is there, and the interest, but it has been hard work that has brought us here. It is all our girls’ work.” These young women are an addition to the 60+ workforce Aruna employs at its nursery – 96% of these workers are women from Ranna and its surrounding neighbourhoods.
Charlotte Blundell, DFAT Counsellor Development Cooperation, stressed on the importance of creating balanced employment opportunities, saying that, “When we visited the lab, we saw that men and women work alongside each other. This is important to us because Australia is committed to creating empowering employment opportunities for both men and women. We have spoken to many women about the importance of working close to home, so I am glad to have an example of sustainable and quality local work for women.”
The innovation trigger
MDF’s investment in Aruna has been the catalyst for the company to take the leap into tissue culture, a relatively risky move. In Sri Lanka, MDF has been working with smaller-scale organisations like Aruna to upgrade production by adopting better technology and methods relating to the core business, as well as as well as improving access to information on business development. The gestation period for a sapling is almost 8 months, and a further month is needed for the plant to adapt to outside conditions before it makes its way to a farm. But the potential pay-off from branching into the technology is the winner – farmers who lose whole crops due to the Panama disease that plagues bananas in the region could see a season of success and income instead, by using these tissue culture saplings. For next year alone, Aruna is targeting the dissemination of almost 300,000 banana saplings, and the demand angle is clear. “We had little knowledge about this before today, but it’s interesting. And if it is successful, we would be willing to purchase it!” said one of the farmers at the event. There are plans to expand into other banana varieties, as well as other fruits and flowering plants, once the banana saplings are out. Thinking ahead, Aruna is looking to widen its sales network from 150 agents to close to 200 by 2018.
The formal proceedings on the day were rounded off with an awareness session for the farmers and lunch for all. With its goal of releasing 300,000 saplings in 2018, Aruna is aiming big, but the outlook is positive. As Mr. Wijewickrema said to the farmers, many of whom have been buying saplings from the Aruna nursery for years now and will be the first beneficiaries of the arrival of this groundbreaking agri-tech, “It has been a long, uphill task for us. But this is a new day for Aruna Plant Nursery, and we are confident that our journey will be successful.”