Coconut country

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 22, 2012 05:07 hrs

Maddur, a nondescript town on the Bangalore-Mysore highway, has the biggest organised market for tender coconuts. Indulekha Aravind visits the bustling mandi to see how the trade is seeing a boom due to the hoopla about the nutritional value of coconut water

They begin to arrive close to 10 in the morning, in mini-trucks, autos and bullock carts. At the gate, they disembark (or descend, depending on the vehicle they are in.) The younger lot wears trousers and shirt, while their elders are in lungis, hitched up or falling to the ground. There are also those who have dispensed with such niceties altogether and stick to the basics of underwear and vest — I even spot one gent in a faded peach “turkey” towel. This is the entrance to Maddur Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), the country’s biggest wholesale tender coconut market, and the only organised one of its kind. Located 80 kilometres from Bangalore in the Mandya district, on the Bangalore-Mysore highway, anywhere between 400,000 and 700,000 tender coconuts are traded here daily, with the number going up to 900,000 in summer months.

But, at 9 am, an hour or so before the action starts, the market has the air of a ghost town with rows and rows of empty trucks parked inside, and only the odd cleaner or driver wandering around. Most of the trucks have Karnataka, Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh number plates, but there are some that have come all the way from Punjab too.

The market was established in 1992, before which the trade in tender coconut used to happen in and around smaller markets in Maddur. “Earlier, the coconuts used to be bought directly from farmers and would be sold in Bangalore. After APMC was set up, they started getting dispatched to Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad as well,” says Zameer Saheb, assistant secretary, APMC. “The water of tender coconuts from the Mandya region is quite sweet,” says Saheb, by way of explanation. I can vouch for that, having already downed two glasses of it. The office is situated at the furthest end of the market and has that slightly depressing air of most sarkari buildings. “Currently, the price is around Rs 10 per piece. A week ago it was Rs 12. Prices vary from day to day,” says Saheb. The coconuts come from Maddur and adjoining areas such as Kollegal, Channarayappattana, Mandya and Pandavpura.

The market was established with the aim of facilitating an auction platform to enable farmers to get better prices; but contrary to recent reports, the mechanism in place is “mutual negotiation”, where the price is arrived at through bargaining between the trader and individual seller, with on-the-spot payment in cash. And most of those who come to the market to sell seem to be middle-men, rather than farmers, though in the eyes of officials they will be “farmers”. Their vehicles loaded with tender coconuts stop at the entrance, creating a minor traffic jam. The traders then examine the produce of each and offer a price. If it’s acceptable to the seller, the vehicle is immediately led to the trader’s truck and the coconuts transferred. APMC officials intervene only in case a dispute arises between the two. Traders pay APMC 1.5 per cent of sales as market fee, which at times can go up to Rs 60,000-65,000 a day. The turnover, officials say, is hard to estimate because there are no records and rates vary daily.

Somasekhara, one of the traders waiting outside the gates, says prices have nearly doubled in the last five years, from Rs 4-5 per tender coconut to Rs 9-10. He has been in the business for 10 years and currently buys and dispatches 30,000 to 40,000 tender coconuts every day to Mumbai, Hyderabad and other markets in Andhra Pradesh. He, and another official speaking off the record, say the farmers prefer not to auction their produce as that would involve the tedious process of grading them into different sizes as well as running the risk of damaging them while unloading them. However, Jayaraman, one of the few individual farmers who have come to the Maddur market, differs. “It is the middlemen who are the main beneficiaries of this system — we get just Rs 8-9 per nut,” says the 45-year-old, whose bullock cart is laden with 400 nuts. Tender coconuts currently sell for Rs 20-25 in Bangalore and Rs 30-35 in markets like Delhi. He says he would prefer an auction, as that might help him get a better price. However, he admits that he is getting higher prices at Maddur than elsewhere. Jayaraman comes to the market every 45 days or so, to sell between 1,000 and 1,500 nuts.

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“But this is actually like an auction,” says Fazilullah Khan, a Maddur-based trader who is supervising the loading of tender coconuts on to his trucks. Khan is referring to the process at the gate, where different traders examine the produce and offer a price, which the seller is free to accept or refuse. Khan himself buys 6,000–12,000 nuts, and sends them to Mumbai. “In summer, around 200 lorries leave this market every day. Now, it’s around 100,” he says, before offering us yet another tender coconut to drink.

The Coconut Development Board, headquartered in Kochi, has an active role to play in the promotion of tender coconuts, and in increasing their popularity. The campaign was started in 2004 so that farmers could reduce their dependence on ripe coconuts, used primarily to make oil, the prices of which was falling because of cheaper vegetable oil imports, says Deepthi Nair, chief marketing officer, Coconut Development Board.

Farmers could also harvest tender coconuts in 6 to 7 months, instead of the longer wait required for the nuts to ripen, which meant they could earn more, says Nair. What followed was a mix of advertisements and advertorials highlighting the benefits of tender coconut water, including a campaign with star athlete P T Usha. The year 2012-13 has, in fact, been declared the year of the tender coconut. This coincided with increasing interest globally in tender coconut water as a health drink.

The board has just received the go-ahead to set up three coconut bioparks for industries making coconut-based products, and is also supporting kiosks selling tender coconut, says Nair. Globally, interest in packaged tender coconut water is increasing, with Coca-Cola buying a majority stake in Zico, the second biggest brand in the market, estimated to be *$350 million. A Business Wire report says the market for coconut water grew 100 per cent in 2011, riding on its nutritional properties such as natural electrolytes, and potassium content.

According to Coconut Development Board figures, Karnataka is the third largest producer of coconuts, with an annual output of 2.17 billion nuts in 2008-09. This is much less than the 5.8 billion nuts produced by Kerala, the top producer of tender coconuts, and Tamil Nadu, the second biggest, at 5.36 billion nuts, but it is still nearly double the previous year’s 1.63 billion nuts. Pollachi in Tamil Nadu is the biggest centre for tender coconut cultivation — output is hampered in Kerala partly because of a superstition that one should not harvest coconuts while tender, explains Nair.

Despite the increasing size of the tender coconut market, with more farmers being tempted to harvest the nuts early because of the attractive price, Maddur town itself does not seem to have benefitted from the boom and seems as nondescript as any other on the highway. This is because tender coconuts are not the main crop of farmers in the region, says Umesh B, branch manager of the Maddur branch of State Bank of Mysore. “I would say barely 2 per cent of the economy is influenced by the tender coconut trade. The main crop here is sugarcane,” he says.

Back at the mandi, Jayaraman continues to wait. He has been offered Rs 8 per nut but he is holding out for a bit more, at least Rs 8.5 or, if he is lucky, even Rs 9. The mini-vans continue to roll in, and on the highway back to Bangalore, there are those making the return journey to the city, laden with tender coconuts to sell at street corners, for a minimum of Rs 20.

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