Prasanna Hettiarachchi would like to change the way you shop for your groceries. He likes to see customers opting for products that are both healthy and honest. Though you may guess that that means locally grown organic foods his approach includes a stipulation that the actual producers are offered fair compensation for their effort and that the environment is protected. It’s part of his role as current President of the Sri Lankan Chapter of the Slow Food movement.
|The 15-acre Saaraketha farm in Wilgamuwa
He is also C.O of Saaraketha Pvt Ltd, a BOI registered, organically certified company specializing in agro forestry and organic agriculture. Though they are a commercial outfit, Saarektha has run programmes in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Fulbright Commission and in the process have reached out to about 500 farmers in Matale District. Their goal is not just to teach, but to practise and prove to the community that their model is a commercially viable one.
The Knuckles mountain range looms in the background of the 15-acre Saaraketha farm in Wilgamuwa. Founded in 2008, some elements of Saaraketha – such as the state of the art kitchen – are still under construction, but by the end of the year, Prasanna and company chairman Ajit Dias hope to be able to demonstrate every step of their plant to plate philosophy on their own grounds. Also on the premises is the knowledge centre with an IT centre and English Lab. The centre’s computers have allowed several young people from the community to enrol in an Online Diploma in Agriculture Technology with the University of Colombo.
An accredited centre, the Saaraktha community was initially too remote to have access to the internet at all, but then Mobitel stepped in and provided them with a special satellite repeater that allows 3G access across the farm. Prasanna is hoping that young students will use this to study further, eventually applying for an online BSc in the same subject. “We’re targeting the youth and the children of the community,” explains Prasanna, saying that they like to think of them “entrepreneurship catalysts,” who can also serve as a conduit to the older generation of more conservative farmers.
At Saaraketha the goal is to demonstrate a sustainable practice and that means encouraging the farmers to embrace an entrepreneurial perspective.
He also hopes to return the farmers to the “common sense their forefathers practised.” Among the approaches that Saaraketha advocate are planting multiple crops to reduce the risk of mono-crop failure, planting complementary crops in cycles such that they support soil health, nitrogen fixation and retain moisture in the soil. Leaf crops such as gotukola planted among ordinary crops are advocated as a method of reducing the need for weedicides. The additional income is an additional incentive.
|The Agri Centre
The company is also determined to leverage technology. Using satellite images, and a hand held GPS unit, they map the terrain and contours of farms. Having located the water source, taken soil tests and indentified the kind of flora the land supports they are able to advise farmers on what kind of interventions are required.
“We are able to design a customised solution that will suit that particular land,” says Prasanna, explaining that this helps farmers make the most of their property. The drainage and soil profile are among the variables that determine the kind of crop the land will best support. “We want them to understand the scientific variables that impact farming,” he says, “this is not rocket science.”
Since the all organic approach means the yield is lower, the initial costs higher and the manual labour more intensive, it’s not always an easy idea to sell. Which is why the company is trying to lay out the entire value chain for its farmers. Currently, they export a range of vegetables, fresh fruit and herbs to places like Maldives and Europe, but Prasanna eventually hopes to have a retail shop in Sri Lanka itself and to support the growth of farmer’s markets. There needs to be more interest locally before he can see that happen.
“The Mount Lavinia Hotel has been sponsoring and championing the cause greatly,” he says, referring to the monthly Slow Food Night the hotel hosts. Such events establish a more educated client base, the final link in the value chain. “We want to create visible, replicable, credible model,” says Prasanna, “we’re demonstrating rather than preaching.”
Savouring slow food night
The table is set for an evening devoted to fine cuisine. We’re not kept waiting long for the food, but in almost every other way, Slow Food philosophy is in direct opposition to modern fast food consumerism. At the monthly Mount Lavinia event, the meal is lingered over and savoured, with a chef introducing each dish and the ingredients that went into it. The seating also encourages casual conversation, with everyone crowding around a U-shaped table.
Each month the hotel brings in new chefs in a determined foray into a new cuisine. Last month it was Indian food, this month it’s Swiss on July 31. Having hosted nearly 20 such dinners, the hotel has it down pat. It’s heavy emphasis on organic, locally sourced ingredients set the experience apart.
“Our movement born at Mount Lavinia Hotel is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy and totally endorses that there is a strong link between plate and planet. Hence the reason for us to initiate the movement in Sri Lanka,” says General Manager at Mount Lavinia Hotel and one of the initiators of the Slow Food Chapter in Sri Lanka Anura Dewapura.