BANDARAWELA - Flowers, specially, roses symbolize love, are exchanged by lovers and presented to patients and other loved ones such as parents, etc. They are also an integral part of weddings and funerals.
There is also the practice of placing flower baskets at vantage points in offices.Yet the age old suppliers of these flowers from Sri Lanka’s hilly, central regions are a disgruntled lot as they are stagnant in their trade without much improvement and they appear to be left out of the country’s economic and development network.
Though there is a huge concentration of these up-country cut-flower and flower plant growers, their existence is hardly noticed, except for a few flower shops in the metropolis and urban and sub-urban centres. They themselves appear to be in the informal sector and also the bulk of their produce goes to the informal market as these flowers are consigned to beauty culturists who undertake the total arrangements of weddings.
Palitha Wanasinghe, President, Uva Horticulturist and Flower Plant Growers Society, at the half-an-acre cut-flower and flower plant nursery owned by Chales Seneviratne in Bandarawela told the Business Times that 90% of the cut-flowers are sent to these individual beauty culturists and thus the magnitude of the industry is not noticed. He said that the Uva Province that covers a major part of the cut-flower growers in up-country are more than 1,000 and altogether there could be more than 8,000 growers spread over this hilly region.
Each of these growers have nursery plots ranging from 20 perches to around even four to five acres. He said that getting additional land for expansion is a major constraint as all arable land is used to grow either tea or rubber. Mr Wanasinghe said that they started their society in 1999, with 50 members now, in the hope of representing their grievances and obtain relief, but they are still to make a forceful impact.
He said that they position their produce according to current demand as from time to time there are favoured varieties and now the demand is for Gerberas, Chrysanthemums and anthuriums, while the demand for roses never fades.
There are several other varieties of flowers also in demand. Mr Seneviratne began growing flowers in 1994 with a meagre capital of around Rs 5,000 and today it is grown to a 100 perches garden, with three huge plant nursery tunnels, each measuring upto 7,000 sq ft.
Though there is no track of the funds ploughed into the industry, Mr Seneviratne said it is now a Rs 2.5 million venture. While most of Sri Lanka’s general industry has adapted to modern technology and innovation and applied them for packaging and transport too, in the case of cut-flowers nothing appears to have changed, because there is no guidance, monitoring or assistance and thus this industry cannot move forward, still using primitive methods of production and marketing. The flowers are stacked in bamboo baskets that have been used for time immemorial and they are transported to the city and other points via trains.
Mr Seneviratne said that they experimented packing the flowers in plastic crates but abandoned this method as it is not practical. He said that the present method does not incur much damage to the flowers. He said that these growers have 5 to 10 regular customers as well as occasional ones and they are dispatched on a particular day of the week. Orders are entertained through mobile and other telephones. Mr Wanasinghe said that no one has directed them to the export markets and they lack the modern methods of growing such as tissue culture and such methods like drip irrigation, etc.
Some of these growers from up-country pointed out that there are large companies that export foliage plants, orchids and certain other varieties of flowers, while these perennial flower suppliers to the nation are completely shut out from the export markt. Mr Wanasinghe said that another difficulty is that they have to obtain loans at very high interest rates.
These cut-flower growers are unable to estimate their income and profits as whatever the income the receive from the sales of these flowers is put back to the industry. Mr Seneviratne said that sometimes the monthly income would grow to Rs 100,000.
They also have to pay back the loans. He said that in their own way they are also experimenting on creating new varieties of flowers and plants and in his nursery there are double petal anthuriums which is very rare. Mr Seneviratne said that there is a belief that orchids cannot be grown with the up-country cold climate. But he said that he has disproved this belief and he has a collection of richly grown orchids and they are sold.
Another thing that hinders the expansion of horticulture in Sri Lanka is that the flower culture – talking with flowers - is not customary in Sri Lanka. In some parts of the workplace, people have a habit of talking with flowers, as in most occasions – birthday parties, visiting parents, dear ones, meeting lovers and in all that flowers have a prominent place. The Export Development Board and other allied state agencies should come to the rescue of this very ‘refreshing’ and ‘colourful’ industry to push them up the ladder of further expansion.
As the government is now trying to control every aspect of the economy, in its development strategies it should not overlook certain areas of the economy as flowers grown in up-country and flowers like anthuriums and orchids could have a great potential in the export market. It would bring in foreign exchange to the government and also increase the number of workers already involved in the industry.
An average two persons regularly work in these flower nurseries and there are occasions when the number goes up to 10. There are also a large number of people involved making bamboo baskets or supplying cow dung . There are also a large number of workers attached to beauty parlors and another large segment of culturists arranging flowers, making head-dresses, bridal bouquets, seatbacks, church decorations and poruwas.