Vegetable Crates May Increase Prices
Text and Photos By Abdul H. Azeez
A walk through Manning Market in Pettah will seem like a scene out of some Chinese action movie. There is a lot of unintelligible yelling, noise and heavily chiselled bodies walking about with hook-like devices.
In reality, the whole complex is one big entity running mainly on organised chaos. Lorries arrive from all over the country with consignments of vegetables from areas as far away as Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Kandy. Naattamis are at hand to unload the trucks and take the goods to their respective stalls. They basically make up the complex’s logistics system. They earn about Rs. 15 per sack and the stronger make about Rs. 1000 per day.
Trading vegetables is a tough job. It is fast-paced and a race against time, right after the farmer cuts the crop. Prices are decided based on supply and demand in the market. Commissions are taken by wholesalers and fees are charged by the transporters, the farmers presumably get the rest. But like the St. Johns Fish Market, change is also coming to Colombo’s iconic Manning Market, and to all other vegetable markets around the island. The government has decreed that all vegetables must now be transported stored in plastic crates and not in the gunny bags currently in use. But just like the fish market, the people of Manning Market are showing reluctance to deviate from tradition.
20% of veggies wasted
The Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene told The Sunday Leader that the basic idea behind this strategy is to avoid waste.
‘Currently about 20% of all vegetables being ferried in this manner goes to waste because of inefficient transport practices.’ Vegetable transporters are notorious for stacking sack upon sack of produce and squeezing it all into a single lorry. This has resulted in a lot of wasted produce that can usually be found raising up a stink at the outskirts of the market.
The Minister says that the traders and their respective associations were given due notice that the change was about to happen. ‘We informed them last year that this will be implemented, we asked them to be prepared.’ The Minister went on to add that around 80,000 crates have already been distributed to farmers and more will be given soon.
The Sunday Leader interviewed traders of two major urban markets in Sri Lanka, namely the Kandy market and the Colombo Manning Market about this issue. Interestingly, opinion was divided among the two marketplaces. Traders in Kandy were willing to embrace the change and most of them said that it was a good thing, given the amount of waste. The Manning Market crowd was against the move, saying that it would prove ineffective and drastically increase costs.
A 400% increase in costs
The Secretary, Traders Association of Manning Market, Gamini Handunge said that ‘the use of crates will mean that only about half the current load will be transportable. Where we used one lorry before, now we will have to use two.’ He went on to add that the association of traders had been in conversation with the authorities with regard to this. He pointed out several other problems that the new changes would bring.
‘A number of crates have been distributed for free, but farmers will have to pay money to buy more. As the demand for these crates increase, thefts could occur in the market. We have neither the security infrastructure nor the space to store these crates in’. ‘Also, how will the crates be sent back to the farmers on the return journey? They will have to pay for more trucks to bring their crates back’. According to the Secretary these factors will amount up to a four-fold increase in transport costs.
The Ministry’s word
When asked about the cost factor, the Minister said that ‘The increase in transport costs will not amount to that much. The crates are designed so that they can be stored inside each other when not used. And this way they will not take up a lot of space and can easily be carried on the top of a truck. A lot of the other costs will be offset by the reduction in wastage.’
Abeywardene went on to add that the crates will not be ‘owned’ by farmers but would be government property. He said that theft would not be a danger because once these crates become abundant they would be exchanged and used in trade, just like one uses soda bottles at a corner shop. He said that the move had been well researched at the Kobbekaduwa research facility. Additional crates and replacement crates were to be supplied free of charge by the government.
When asked if there would be any upward effect on the overall prices of vegetables because of the move the Minister said ‘No. Any effect will have to be absorbed by the market and adjusted to. This is not that hard, in countries like Japan we have seen how trucks and lorries have adapted to more efficient methods of transporting produce.’
Everyday several tonnes of vegetables get spoilt while being transported in conditions of extreme pressure. The Ministry says the official figure is equivalent to 20% of all vegetables traded, while the Secretary of the Kandy Market Wijesinghe said the figure was closer to 40%. Officials and traders at the Colombo Manning Market were hazy about the actual figure, although they all asserted that wastage was not a problem. The Secretary even said that most of the wastage was the farmer’s fault. ‘It happens when they pack spoilt vegetables with good ones.’