Shanika Sriyananda, GPI

Cashew Sellers Struggle Against Rising Cost of Commodities, Competition From Supermarkets


Article Highlights

Kumari Weerasinghe, 38, struggles to sell cashew nuts in Kajugama to support her children.  
Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka’s “Village of Cashew Nuts,” nearly 100 women depend on their sales to earn a living and support their families.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Kumari Weerasinghe, 38, rushes to set up her packages of spiced, roasted and boiled cashew nuts to sell on the roadside. She displays them on an old, wooden table every day in Kajugama, which means “Village of Cashew Nuts.”

After completing her household chores every morning, Weerasinghe waits for her elder daughter to come home from school. Then, she brings her two younger children and sometimes her elder daughter to her brother’s house near the main road. She sells nuts all afternoon outside his house with her 1-year-old son, Tharaka, on her lap.

Today, a few dozen women – young and old – gather with Weerasinghe under makeshift huts to sell their cashew nuts. Clad in brightly colored “hattes” and “reddas” – short jackets and sarongs – the women try to attract customers. Many of their potential customers are traveling between Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, and Kandy, the capital of the Central province.

Weerasinghe works to supplement the earnings of her husband, who works abroad in the United Arab Emirates.

“My husband is working as a construction worker in Dubai, and he sends money,” she says. “But when we pay the loan interest, which we took from the bank to build our house and other expenses for food, education, electricity and water, it is not enough.”

But Weerasinghe says she does not always make a profit. Her daily earnings range from zero to 2,000 rupees ($15) per day, depending on traffic.

“We have some regular customers,” Weerasinghe says. “But there are days that we just sit here baking in the hot sun and go home empty-handed.”

She does not want her two daughters to follow in her footsteps, she says. So she is saving extra money to secure a better future for them.

“I want my daughters to study well and do decent jobs,” Weerasinghe says. “I don’t want them to waste their youth on the road selling cashew nuts under the hot sun.”

Her elder daughter, Himashi Weerasinghe, 13, says her mother’s work is not respectable.

“I hate my mother selling cashew nuts,” Himashi says. “I want my mother to be at home. Don’t women lose their respect when they are standing on the roadside?”

Despite the village’s moniker and history, Weerasinghe says she believes that selling cashew nuts will soon become a trade of the past as competition increases, prices of commodities soar and young people yearn to work outside the village.

Throughout Sri Lanka, cashew nuts are common in local dishes. Citizens also give them as gifts at parties and weddings.

Villagers have sold cashew nuts to earn a living in Kajugama, also known as Bataleeya, for generations.

Piyasena Ratnayake, 52, says his grandmother told him that she sold cashew nuts when she was a teenager to Englishmen who ruled Sri Lanka after 1815.

“She [said] they came in horse-driven carts and gave some extra coins to her,” he says, “as they were happy with the taste of fresh cashew nuts.”

Today, women still sell cashew nuts to earn a living. Nearly 100 other women in Kajugama sell them each day.

But they say their sales are declining.

One reason is the rising cost of commodities, including nuts, sugar, milk powder, spices and animal products. As of June 2013, the inflation rate regarding the price of food and nonalcoholic beverages was 7.3 percent, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. By comparison, this rate was 0.8 percent in June 2009.

Sriyani Gamage, a 66-year-old cashew nut vendor, blames these higher prices for her lower sales.

“We buy nuts for high prices from the wholesale vendors,” she says. “To make a profit for us, we also have to sell them for high prices, which makes the local and foreign tourists avoid buying them.”

In Kajugama, 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cashew nuts from a wholesaler can cost a street vendor as much as 2,000 rupees ($15). One kilogram (2.2 pounds) is enough to make small packets with 20 to 25 nuts per packet, Gamage says. Vendors then sell the packets for 100 rupees (75 cents) each.

A surge in supermarkets, which offer lower prices, is also hurting vendors’ sales, Wimalasiri Perera, 56, says. His family used to be able to earn a living from selling cashew nuts but cannot anymore.

“My wife used to be in a small, makeshift hut from dawn to dusk selling cashew nuts,” he says. “We had a good income a decade ago. But now, with supermarkets mushrooming in every corner of the country, people buy cashew nuts from them. Roasted and spiced cashew nuts are commonly available.”

Competition among the women is a lesser but still present obstacle.

A major factor in making sales is beauty, Weerasinghe says. Those who do not go home empty-handed tend to be the most beautiful.

“Kajugama is known for its beautiful women,” she says. “Most of the male travelers on their way to Kandy stop here because of the girls with long hair and attractive outfits.”

The women who sell the most cashew nuts also have the fairest skin, she says.

Fair skin has long been a factor in determining beauty here, according to Steven Kemper, author of “Buying and Believing: Sri Lankan Advertising and Consumers in a Transnational World,” a book that examines the Sri Lankan advertising industry and investigates what makes commodities locally desirable. This local preference dates back to colonialism.

“Preference for fair complexions stops short of white skin,” Kemper writes.

Weerasinghe says that she, like many other women, used to have fair skin before sitting in the sun all day.

“Many women in their 40s were fair-skinned,” she says. “But as they struggle daily to earn a living under the hot sun, their beauty has fast disappeared.”

Today, though, even the most beautiful sellers are struggling against the rising prices of commodities and competition from supermarkets.

With sales down, many people here are leaving the family trade of selling cashew nuts and looking into other goods to sell.

Perera says his family now sells other goods, such as king coconut, to make ends meet.

“We sell coconut, king coconut and whatever available in the village to earn a meager living,” he says, “and youth go to cities for jobs.”

The family sells cashew nuts now only occasionally.

When people want cashew nuts to cook a curry for “dana” – alms to invoke blessings for the dead – Perera accepts orders. He earns more this way than selling cashew nuts daily.

But most of his family members have abandoned the trade completely.

“My daughter goes to work in a garment factory, and my son works in Colombo,” he says. “You can see most of the small huts along this road have been abandoned, as there is not much business for them.”

Tharushi Gunapala, 22, sells cashew nuts – but not by choice, she says. She joined the trade to fill the void left by her sick mother, who had sold them for decades.

“I didn’t want to be a cashew nut seller like my mother,” she says. “But there are some regular customers for us. I will soon stop this business after one of my applications to the garment factory is accepted.”

She does not want the scorching sun to bake her like her mother, who was one of the beauties in the village, she says.

“She had to wait from dawn to dusk to sell few packets of cashew nuts,” Gunapala says.

But many women, such as Gamage and Weerasinghe, say they have no alternatives. They need the income they receive from their cashew nut sales in order to support their families.

“I don’t want to be a burden for my children,” Gamage says. “I know nothing about other means of earning and will continue to sell cashew nuts, even though income is not enough.”