Serendib Horticulture makes key contribution to emerging export product sector | Daily News

Serendib Horticulture makes key contribution to emerging export product sector

Serendib Horticulture Technologies (Pvt) Ltd, one of the leading horticulture companies in Sri Lanka, is looking to expand its local and global presence, sharing local knowhow and knowledge with foreign governments, while supporting agriculture research and export production in Sri Lanka.

Located in Kalagedihena in Gampaha, Serendib Horticulture Technologies is a leading company in plant bio-technology, where many varieties are produced through tissue culture technology.

The plants include ornamental plants, such as banana, pineapple, potato and strawberry and the company is committed to produce superior quality plants with timely delivery.

The company currently exports flowers, fruits and vegetable plants to Holland, Denmark, Japan, USA, Germany, South Korea, Bahrain, Qatar and UAE, etc.

In an interview with Daily News Business, Serendib Horticulture Technologies Chairman and CEO Dilip de Silva shared his views on the company’s success story, its contribution towards the Sri Lankan exports sector, future plans, etc.

Q: What progress has been made by the company since inception in Sri Lanka and how has your brand been accepted by both local and international customers?

When I took over the company from Ceylon Tobacco Company in 1999, its production was very small, something close to 300,000 plants per year. But over the years we expanded our markets and product range. In the first few years we participated in many exhibitions internationally and we had a very aggressive marketing strategy. That really paid off. I exposed some of my staff to international markets.

Q: What factors have contributed to the overall performance of the company over the years?

The main contributory factor was the dedication of the staff. I have very experienced staff who have been with me through all the difficult periods we have faced. We need to be technically competent in addition to managerial competencies. Running a commercial tissue culture lab successfully is not as easy as one would think. A slight mistake can ruin your production. It’s very sensitive to chemicals, temperature, etc. The staff have to be at it all the time. So it’s the staff, managerial competencies and aggressive marketing that contributed to the success of the company.

Q: What are your plans to expand the company’s presence in the region? Could you brief us on the company’s upcoming and ongoing projects both at home and abroad as well as main exports markets?

I had plans of expanding in Sri Lanka. But I have temporarily suspended them. This is because we are working on many international projects. The biggest project that is being done is in Rwanda where we will be setting up a tissue culture lab for approx. 2.0 million plants per year for a Rwandan company.

I had meetings with the investors, DG of the Department of Agriculture, CEO of the Rwandan Development Bank, Mayor, etc., on this project. It’s amazing how very supportive the Rwandan government is for this project. This is a three-year project for us. During this period, we will establish the lab, train the staff and produce their requirement of fruit plants. Training will be done by my staff at Serendib. They will be in Rwanda for three-month periods. It would be great exposure for them as well.

The next project we have is in Iran, where we will transform an R&D facility into a commercial entity. This is a consultancy for one year. We will be starting this project this month. I'm happy as a Sri Lankan that we have been called by a country like Iran which is technically well advanced.

The next project we are working on is in Pakistan. Once again we will be setting up a tissue culture lab to produce their local fruits. This project is also supported by the government of Pakistan.

So, with all these projects, we are working to capacity.

Our main export markets are Holland, Japan, USA, Australia, Pakistan, Denmark, Rwanda, Iran, Germany and Korea. We have a very wide presence, except in Russia.

Q: How is the local horticulture industry faring in the current context?

If you look around when travelling in the island, you will see many small flower shows. This implies that there is a lot of potential in the local market. People, mainly women, are getting more into the plant and flower business. This is a very good sign. But we need to see how we could sustain the industry. Most of the plants, especially orchids, that you see in the market are all imported from Thailand.

This is a trend we have to stop. For many years, orchids were allowed to be imported with coir fibre blocks. Bringing in coir products to Sri Lanka is banned due to our coconut industry. But they allowed orchid imports with coco chips. Look what has happened to the coconut industry in Sri Lanka. It has been devastated with various pests.

Coco chips could have very well been imported from Thailand with the orchids. After a lot of lobbying we have succeeded in allowing only bare rooted orchid plants to Sri Lanka with no coco chips. But if you go around and ask people who grow Thailand orchids, most would say that they die after 1-2 years or that they give deformed flowers. But if we are to stop this, we need to produce our own orchids. This is what the tissue culture labs in Sri Lanka should be trying to do. This is where government intervention is required.

Q: What challenges and opportunities do you see in the local horticulture industry? What suggestions do you have for the betterment of the industry?

Sri Lanka has a growing middle class. This means that people will have more disposable income. Sri Lankans are also very conscious about the environment and the greening concepts. Sri Lanka has very good potential for horticulture.

When we talk of horticulture, it includes fruits, vegetables and flowers. We need good planting material. This could be produced after indexing for diseases. Fruits such as banana, pineapple and strawberry could be produced on a mass scale through tissue culture.

We need to look at commercial cultivation models for exports as well as models where cooperative systems are worked out throughout grower schemes. This would generate more employment and the village economies would prosper.

Government agencies should support exporters in their endeavour to reach markets. Archaic regulations of import and exports should be looked into on a case by case basis. For example, my company has been striving for nearly three years to export an ornamental aquatic plant called Cryptocoryne which is produced through tissue culture.

This plant species is found all over the world. But our authorities say it is endangered and it is on the red list prohibiting the export. This has deprived my company and the country of hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign exchange.

If the government institutes are more amenable to producers and exporters of horticulture products, most of the challenges could be overcome and the opportunities could be made into reality.

Q: Does your company continuously engage in innovating horticulture products and services and how has it impacted your overall business?

Innovation in our company is through selection. We look at plants that could have an export potential and we develop the protocols for its propagation. Sometimes it could be just a plant or two that we may get. But we work on it and try to make it into a product that our markets would accept. Samples are then sent to the market to test its acceptability. Generally it takes about a year or two to get a positive feedback from the market. We have introduced several varieties to the global market through these innovations.

Q: In the face of global economic turmoil and civil unrest in various countries, fuel prices are going up. This has resulted in increased air transport charges. How would this impact the growth aspirations of the company in the near and mid-term?

Increases in fuel prices will certainly have a negative impact on the market. Firstly, our production costs will go up and then the costs of our customers who have greenhouses which need heating will also have a higher bill to pay. We need to be very mindful about the cost. If the market is going to stagnate or decline, then expansion of business will have to be put on hold and we would concentrate on existing orders.

Q: In spite of invaluable contribution to economic growth, farmers in developing countries often lack tools, money and skills to respond to agricultural development changes. How do you view this ?

Unfortunately, research and development has been very weak in Sri Lanka. This is not because we do not have researchers to carry out research but because they do not have a focus on application. Research should be focused on application. If a specific research application could result in a farmer’s yield increasing by a certain percentage, then it’s a research that's valuable. But unfortunately most research in Sri Lanka is done for the purpose of publishing papers. The good projects that are done are not continued to a commercial application stage. There is a gap between the researchers and the implementers. This has to be bridged if we are to come out with quality research.

Q: Deforestation is a global issue. How does a company like Serendib help fight deforestation?

We have already identified the problem the country is facing regarding the loss of forest cover. We have identified a variety for which we have already developed the tissue culture protocol. We will soon be doing a pilot project in the dry zone. If permission is granted and accepted, it will make a great impact on the reforestation program. At this moment, I cannot reveal details of this project, but soon we will make it public.

Q: How does Serendib help build food security and nourish growth?

We are working on staple crops for the government of Rwanda. At the moment, the stocks are being built up and by early next year the production will begin in Rwanda under our management.

Q: What trends and innovations can be identified in the horticulture industry both at home and abroad?

Medicinal plants have a huge demand globally. The field of medicine is changing to drugs made of medicinal plant extracts. Sri Lanka is a bio-diversity hot spot. We have many plant species that have been used in our traditional medicine. Such remedies are being researched in many countries. This is an industry that we should focus on. We need to identify plant varieties with medicinal properties, develop protocols for propagation and cultivate them commercially. This field will have a growing demand during the next decade.

Q: How does your company make a responsible commitment to the wellbeing of the local farming community in Sri Lanka?

We do a lot of propagation of banana, anthuriums, orchids, etc., for local farmers. Our responsibility does not end after we sell the plant.

We visit our farmers to inquire about the product and discuss any problems they have and collectively, we try to find solutions. This gives them a lot of encouragement to continue with their farming. We are working on expanding our engagement with the farming community we have developed over the last two years with increased production of the varieties they require.

Q What sort of investment plan does your company have in mind in Sri Lanka?

There is a good demand in the future for horticulture in Sri Lanka. Expansion could be justified due to the increase in demand.

With the present responsibilities I have on overseas projects, it is difficult for me to handle them by myself. Hence I'm looking for an investor or investors to partner with me, to take this industry to a higher level. We now have the technology, markets and trained staff that could make a difference to the horticulture industry in Sri Lanka.


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