2020 Anxieties Driving Coconuts to Artificial Scarcity
By Nabiya Vaffoor
Though there were Press releases and gazettes issued that the prices of essential goods, including coconuts, were reduced considering the price hike consumers had to face with the pandemic and the shortage of coconuts, not even the public in areas that were under lockdown found the reduced priced essentials in Sathosa stores. It attracted many a Media and public attention that the availability of price reduced essential goods being only limited to Government Press releases.
“Some vendors are heartless enough to sell the smallest sized coconut above Rs100, therefore to support the consumer; Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has taken this step to gazette a particular price range according to the size range of coconuts,” Chairman of CAA- Asela Bandara, told Ceylon Today.
Being the fourth-largest exporter of coconut products in the world, coconuts accounts for approximately 12 per cent of all agricultural produce in Sri Lanka. But there is an annual issue that every Sri Lankan consumer faces during off-season; the price hike. Being one of the staple ingredients in Sri Lankan cuisine, a minor shortage of the coconut harvest can bring a huge impact on the market and price range.
Vendors stopped selling coconuts
Observing the local markets we found out that some vendors have stopped selling coconuts because of the conflict of the gazette price and size of coconuts and because suppliers are not ready to sell their coconuts for that price. Some take the risk of selling coconuts for higher prices for the same price as they get from the suppliers without bothering to sort them according to sizes mentioned in the gazette. Some have stopped selling coconuts altogether which has created an impression that there is a shortage of coconuts, causing consumers to buy coconuts wherever they see for whatever price or size the vendor makes available.
Speaking with Ceylon Today many consumers claimed that though the Government deducted coconut prices through a gazette and informed the public that essential goods are available in Sathosas, many have failed to find them at the co-op stores. “Especially when it comes to coconuts,” 55-year-old Nazly claimed. He said he visited several Sathosas around Colombo to buy some coconuts according to the gazette price and all the stores that he visited didn’t have any coconuts left. Despite being inconvenienced, Nazly had to buy some coconuts from a nearby shop at his area for a higher price; each Rs 95.
To find out where these issues are being created in the coconut market we also spoke to a couple of shop owners who sell coconuts.
Heading to a famous market area in Colombo we spoke to the owners of Asian Groceries store. There we witnessed a vendor who has stopped selling coconuts in his store because of the said conflict that was created between suppliers and the CAA coconut gazette.
“The wholesale business owners, who are supposed to supply us coconuts, have stopped supplying them because of the controlled price that was issued on coconuts. I sold the previous stock that I had to the price that I got them and didn’t purchase another stock because it is not profitable to sell them at Rs70, which doesn’t even cover the wholesale price that we bought it for.”
Walking a bit further another vendor who didn’t want to reveal his or his shop’s identity in Malay Street noted that suppliers don’t want to sell coconuts for less than Rs 80. Therefore, he had stopped buying coconuts because he can’t sell them higher than the gazette price as well as lower than the price he bought.
Then we met 42-year-old Asitha, owner of Asitha stores. He gets coconuts for Rs85 from his wholesale supplier and sells them at Rs 90. When we asked him why he didn’t question his supplier on not selling his products according to the gazette price, he noted that he cannot question the suppliers because they say that if we really want the products they should buy it at the price that they charge or they may just leave.
“I get coconuts for Rs 85 and sell it for Rs 90 if it’s scrapped it will be Rs 100,” he added. When we fielded a question, whether the public still buys his products though it is overpriced, he noted that since some vendors have stopped selling coconuts because of the price and size conflict after the CAA coconut gazette was issued, it has been hard for the public to find coconuts. Therefore no matter whatever the price is, people still keep buying it since they need it,” he added.
“The controlled price will not work because the authorities don’t check whether wholesale suppliers are selling coconuts at the allocated price. None of these suppliers sell their coconuts according to the price range that was issued in the gazette, nor according to the sizes mentioned in the gazette. We are the ones who get caught if we sell these over the price. They say that they have gazetted an appropriate size and prices are set according to the sizes to bring a standard to the coconut market, but the standard is only limited to the gazette document. The raids were only carried out around small shops and businesses like us. The officials should carry these raids on the wholesale suppliers who sell these nuts without following any of those guidelines mentioned in the gazette. We weren’t supplied these nuts assorted according to sizes mentioned in the gazettes or the prices that has been mentioned. We can’t question the suppliers because they say that we either buy it according to their prices or just leave,” noted Asitha.
Fixing the price
Fielding a question about the said issue, Chairman of CAA, Asela Bandara said, “We carried out more than 200 raids on vendors who violate the gazette prices and sizes of coconuts, and legal actions will be taken on all these raided suppliers. Though we raid a lot of locations we don’t take legal actions on each and every shop we raid. Mostly, we understand that it’s not the small shop owners who increase the price or violate the size range of the coconuts. It is the wholesale supplier who doesn’t supply it according to gazette guidelines. Mostly, we warn the minor business owners to sell it according to the gazette guidelines. Firstly, we should understand that the pricing the coconuts according to sizes is not something new, it’s already a practice that we see in the local coconut market. We had to gazette this in order to control the price violations that some suppliers and vendors make during low harvest seasons.”
A wholesale seller, Bandara Karunathilake noted that he had to stop selling coconuts for a short period because of the Rs 4 loss he had to incur for each coconut that he sold till 5 October.
“We brought 2,000 coconuts until 5 October for Rs 74 and had to sell them for Rs 70. Also because all these coconuts were supplied to us in various sizes, we cannot measure each and every coconut that we get from the stock which was sold to us in bulk. Since the gazette was issued that coconuts should be sold for Rs 70 I had to give this at that price to the ones who buy from me wholesale. I supply hotels who buy coconuts from me at Rs 70 though I incur Rs 4 loss for each coconut I sell and I stopped purchasing them since I can’t take the loss each and every time.
There are some vendors who sell these coconuts for Rs 100. We can’t blame them because if they get it for Rs 80 per nut they will have to keep at least Rs 5-10 to cover the transporting expenses, daily wage to the workers and drivers who work in the vehicle and the rent of the shop. If the Government can supply these coconuts deducting Rs 5 for each nut according to the price range that was gazetted, we could have sold them without any problem according to the gazette price. If we are getting it for the same price that was gazetted or for a higher price that was gazetted, forget about the profit; we can’t even cover the basic expenses of that business.
The coconut harvest is low around this time each year therefore the coconut prices increase generally but the coconut cultivation owners cannot decrease the wage that they pay workers who pluck and husk coconuts. These expenses also include the transportation of these nuts and so on. If the Government is trying to regulate the price range of coconut they should buy the harvest from all the coconut cultivation owners at a fixed price and distribute them to sellers so we all can sell that for the same price with Rs 3-5 benefit. Else, this will create an unwanted shortage of coconuts in the market. Since I’ve stopped bringing in the nuts I have lost a couple of wholesale orders. Though vain I haven’t got any other solutions.”
Then we spoke to Rizana who sell coconuts in her house.
“We buy about 250 coconuts from Pettah every morning for Rs 70 each nut. We have to spend more than Rs 400 everyday to transport the stock; therefore we sell each coconut for Rs 90, if it’s scrapped its Rs 100. We can’t sell the coconuts for the same price that we get because it will not even cover the transporting expense of the stock. Though the Government told us to sell according to sizes, none of these wholesale sellers sold us the nuts in such way. They sell those nuts in various sizes but for the same price. We never got small coconuts for Rs 60-65 no matter whether it’s small or big. So we sell it at the same price. If the customer demands bigger coconuts for the price they pay, we let them choose bigger coconuts from the stock,” noted Rizana.
Zamiya Imran is another women who sells various types homemade flour and scrapped coconut for her living.
“I don’t sell coconuts as nuts, I scrape them and sell them. I get a nut for Rs 80 from Pettah as a whole bulk and scrape them in this electric machine and pack it in polythene bags and sell them for Rs 100. According to the gazette the Government issued, it’s hard to price the coconuts according to size. It’s easier to sell it scrapped because the people are the ones who choose the nut they want, I just scrape it and pack it for them and I get the same price for all of them no matter the size. Since there are people who run small hotels around, it’s easier for them to get scraped coconuts rather than getting the whole nut and scrapping it later,” noted Zamiya.
We spoke with a couple of hotel owners and food vendors who purchase coconuts on a daily basis to check how the price and the shortage of coconuts have affected them after the CAA’s coconut gazette.
“I got coconuts for Rs 90 before the gazette and still the same price remains. There’s no change to it. It was a bit hard to find coconuts around, therefore I had to purchase them from Pettah in bulk and store it for the whole week. Previously, I didn’t stock up on coconuts for the whole week since the vendors have stopped selling coconuts because they have to price them according to size, I didn’t want to face the risk of running out of coconuts when we needed it the most,” noted 55-year-old Razik Ilmy- owner of Asha Bakery.
Then we spoke to Samina who sells string hoppers to daily wage workers and residents around her area for supper.
“It’s hard to find coconuts these days since the vendors who I purchase goods from have stopped selling coconuts after they have to price it according to the size. I need five coconuts per day to provide coconut milk and pol-sambol as sides to the string hoppers that I sell. Those days I used to buy them for Rs 75-85. But now since this gazette was issued, I had to buy packaged scrapped coconuts for Rs 100 from a shop nearby because there aren’t any coconuts for cheaper price elsewhere,” she added.
Though the CAA and relevant authorities in this regard claim that steps such as controlled prices were taken to support the consumer it is still questionable whether the steps they took were really supportive enough or had added a burden to the public?
(Pix by Eunice Ruth)