Richlife leads the way in raising milk production
By Quintus Perera
The latest milk and other food packaging techniques called aseptic technology, which preserves nutrients and retains flavour more than the conventional sterilization is now commonly used in developed countries including Sri Lanka.

This novel packaging was first introduced to Sri Lanka by Richlife Ltd (earlier Tropifruit Ltd), a BOI-approved company, in 1995. The technology involves heat sterilization of the food and packaging separately at low temperatures and more rapidly than canning. Aseptically packaged foods can stay without refrigeration for long periods of time, perhaps even years.

The Richlife factory situated at Wadduwa is one of the best and most up-to-date food processing plants, processing and packing liquid milk, iced tea and fruit drinks and juices. It uses Tetra Pak brand of aseptic packing material. Richlife started with milk produced at its own farm at Pilimathalawa, Kandy and fruit drinks, with 10,000 litres of milk every other day.

Ownership of the company was changed from M. Nizam to M. J. Perera in 1999 and the name Tropifruit to Richlife in 2001. The day-to-day management is handled by a trio - Prasanna Perera, Working Director; Ranjith Jayasooriya, Director/General Manager and Amal Chandana, Procurement Manager.

Following new management concepts, Richlife diversified its product range to include yogurt, sterilized milk in bottles, butter and fruit drinks in bottles while the newest addition is jam. Chandana said that when the company started there were only 90 employees but now there are about 275.

Up to 1997 the milk supply came from its own farm. But now the company has collecting centres with chilling facilities at Dambulla, Pilimathalawa, Rikillagaskadawala, Meepe, Horana, Bandaragama and Matugama. Every morning milk is collected in bowsers and transported to the chilling centres. Chandana said that some farmers bring even two to three litres to collecting centers. For the convenience of the farmers in remote areas the company has set up collecting points.

"It is a massive precision packed operation where the collection of milk has to be done by 10.30 am while we accommodate even those very small farmers with two to three litres of milk. All the milk is carefully tested," he said. At the centre, milk is chilled down to 4°C. The milk is then transported to the processing plant at Wadduwa in bowsers.

Once the milk is pumped to the silos, it is untouched by humans until the milk packet comes out of the plant. The aseptic packaging plants are sometimes run below capacity for reasons of low movement of the product in the market place as Sri Lankan consumers appear to be slow to adapt themselves to the new technology and partly also due to the short supply of milk. The plant capacity is 4,000 litres per hour.

Richlife field officers have found out that the milk supply is low due to various constraints farmers face such as high cost of inputs. Richlife now supply farmers with some veterinary products at below cost and also animal food. Chandana said that they find it difficult to obtain highbred quality animals for the farmers.

Earlier a litre of milk was sold at around Rs 12 to 13 which has now increased to around Rs 18.50 per litre. Prasanna Perera said that the initial investment was Rs 400 million. Annual turnover is in the range of Rs 25 million. Apart from the initial investment the company has spent more than Rs 150 million for various other improvements.

Richlife pioneered aseptic packaging here and a few others too now use this process. Chandana said the reason why Sri Lankans are slow to adapt to the new technology is because they prefer see-through packaging. "They are picking up, but slow," he said.

The company is equipped with its own field officers who make frequent visits to farms and provide information as to how quality milk is produced. They also gather information on farmer grievances. The biggest problem is obtaining high yielding animals, an issue that has to be addressed by the government.

As a partial solution at Pilimathalawa, Richlife has started a programme of artificial insemination offered to the farmer at a very low rate and is popular. Richlife along with others in the Dairy Development and Milk Procurement and Processors Association have been making representations to the authorities on the farmer grievances.

They have been discussing the problem of VAT that affects the prices of coconut poonac. While local industries seek more and more redress the authorities are making it difficult to do business. Earlier VAT on coconut poonac was 10 percent but now it has gone up to 15 percent.

There are six players in the market now for aseptic packaged milk and there are also six brands imported using the same packaging. Chandana said the country's milk production serves only 45 percent of the total consumption. If the local production could be increased, imports could be curtailed and if the necessary impetus is provided such as low cost inputs and high yielding highbred animals at low prices local farmers could meet the entire demand of the country.

Perera, discussing the future, said for Richlife to fill the shortfall in the milk collection that would enable the plants to run to full capacity and to expand production, the company is laying the groundwork to start a modern dairy farm of about 100 acres in the intermediary zone. Initially the farm would have 100 locally available crossbred animals for milking purposes.

He said, "Our purpose in setting up the farm is not to have it for ourselves, but to cater to the pressing needs of the farmers so that there is plenty of milk available." He added that Richlife's role here is to strengthen farmers by offering them better prices.

Chandana said that in India farmers are offered highbred animals, nourishing fodder and also very good artificial insemination programmes which has enabled India to be the largest milk producing country in the world.

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