Manori Wijesekera, GPI
 

New Sri Lankan Market Boosts Awareness, Access to Organic Products

 

Article Highlights

Sri Lanka

Although organic products were once commodities for the wealthy, they are gaining popularity throughout urban and rural areas. Many families are even starting to sacrifice other luxuries so they can afford organic food.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Prasanna Hettiarachchi says that access to ethical produce should be a universal right.

“There are people who value and want good, clean, ethical produce,” says Hettiarachchi, chairman of Saaraketha, an organic produce and traditional rice company. “I believe it’s the fundamental right of everyone, not just rich people.”

Hettiarachchi is not alone. Once a week, he and other like-minded vendors gather at The Good Market, a new weekly market in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, that features organic produce, healthy foods, local handicrafts and other artisanal, sustainable products.

Surrounded by boxes overflowing with fresh, local fruits and vegetables, Hettiarachchi says his produce is both nutritious and affordable.

“The idea that organic food is a fad, that it’s expensive, should be dispelled,” he says. “It’s completely wrong that only a particular segment of our society can access healthy food.”

As the first market collective featuring organic items in Sri Lanka, The Good Market is returning as well as expanding access to these products among the general public. Vendors offer items ranging from organic produce to artisanal cheeses and take advantage of the in-person opportunity to teach customers about the health, environmental and social benefits of their production processes. In addition to pursuing a new certification process to ensure the quality of the market’s products, vendors are also collaborating to promote sustainable and ethical business practices.

 

The Good Market is the first market collective in Sri Lanka to offer organic and artisanal products to consumers. Located near the popular jogging track and waterway in Battaramulla, a suburb of Colombo, the market is open from noon to 8 p.m. every Thursday.

It is a volunteer-led initiative supported by the Sevalanka Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization that helps rural communities identify and address their developmental needs by providing support services that contribute to sustainability.

The Good Market launched in December 2012 with 32 vendors. Today, it hosts 71 vendors.

The market serves an estimated 1,000 people per week, says Amanda Kiessel, a co-organizer. There is no entrance fee or guest registration, so there is no exact data on the number of weekly visitors.

Organic produce is not new to Sri Lanka.

“Before the economy was liberalized in the 1970s, all our farmers grew their produce using organic fertilizers,” says N.R.K. Nisansala, farm manager for Islander Organic, an organization working with local farmers to encourage organic farming.

Nisansala operates a group farm in Sri Lanka’s North Central province.

“There was a lot of local knowledge about pest control using various organic methods that did not involve any chemicals,” he says.

Now, organic products are once again gaining popularity in both urban and rural areas, according to a 2012 report on the status of organic farming in Sri Lanka.

“Organic products were mainly popular among urban and educated consumers representing the upper middle class segment,” wrote W.M.K.B. Wahundeniya, principal investigator for the Asian Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative, the organization that produced the report.

The Good Market reflects this rise in popularity of organic products among the general public. It also contributes to the community’s access to and understanding of it.

Islander Organic and Saaraketha are the two organic produce vendors at The Good Market. In addition to providing organic fruits and vegetables, both stalls carry traditional varieties of heirloom rice that are no longer available in stores.

For Hettiarachchi, exposing citizens to these products promotes knowledge, dialogue and choice.

“What is the point in us talking about good, clean, ethical produce if people don’t have that choice?” he asks. “The Good Market is a space that creates and facilitates that choice.”

Customers such as Leslie Gunaratne, a grandfather from the Colombo suburb of Nugegoda, say they appreciate that choice.

“We have been growing our own vegetables for many years for our own food, using organic methods,” Gunaratne says. “My wife and I are retired teachers, and we understand the value of chemical-free food. But as we got older, it became difficult to grow the vegetables, so we stopped.”

He has been coming to The Good Market for the past four months.

“When we heard about The Good Market, it was like a godsend,” he says.

The quality of the produce is unmatched, Gunaratne says.

“There is such a difference in taste,” he says. “I can tell the difference between a chemical-laden eggplant and an organic one simply by tasting the cooked dish.”

Market organizers have established new minimum standards for sustainable practices for vendors. They are in the process of launching The Good Market Organic Participatory Guarantee System, which will provide a stringent local certification based on the standards of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

For many customers, those standards mean everything.

“Now, we can eat organic vegetables, knowing we are not polluting our bodies,” Gunaratne says.

His wife uses the vegetables they buy from the market to cook dishes for their children and grandchildren.

In addition to enabling a return to organic food for customers like Gunaratne, The Good Market is generating new awareness about these products and healthier lifestyles among other customers.

Sharmini Wickramasuriya, 43, came to the market on a recent Thursday with her daughters, 10 and 14.

“I have been interested in organic food – I know it’s better for us – but I had no idea where or how I could buy it,” Wickramasuriya says. “I bought some fresh vegetables today. I am looking forward to cooking it. Everyone says organic food tastes better, so I will test this theory!”

She acknowledges that the prices are higher but says the increased value is worth it.

On average, prices of the organic fruits and vegetables can be 40 percent to 60 percent higher than nonorganic produce at a local supermarket, she says. A kilo of beans, which costs about 80 rupees (60 cents) in a supermarket, can cost about 115 rupees (90 cents) here.

“Some people may say this market is for the rich,” Wickramasuriya says. “But we are a middle-class family. And if we make a sacrifice, we can afford to buy the organic produce. It depends on what you value – your health or the other silly things you want to spend your money on?”

Gunaratne agrees.

“We are not rich people, and the organic vegetables are expensive,” Gunaratne says. “But we decided to cut back on other expenses and buy these vegetables every week because it is a real investment.”

The benefits for customers extend beyond the products they buy, says Achala Samaradivarakara, a co-organizer of The Good Market.

“This market helps consumers understand who produces the products, how it impacts the environment, what it means to have a fair price, and how it fits into a healthy, sustainable lifestyle,” Samaradivarakara says.

As the number of customers grows, so does the number of vendors seeking to sell their products here.

The Good Market currently receives an average of five new vendor applications each week, according to the Sevalanka Foundation. The organizing committee, a group of 12 vendors and representatives of the foundation, reviews applications at the end of the market each week.

And with each new stall come new ideas and increased collaboration.

Jez Jameel and his wife opened their stall, Eyrie, selling only goat’s milk soap. But the strong support from organizers and shoppers inspired them to expand their business.

“If not for The Good Market, our business would not have come about the way it has,” Jameel says. “At least 95 percent of my business has been born here.”

Eyrie now also makes and sells cheese and organic dairy products at The Good Market.

Priyanka Pradeepa Kumari is a housewife and mother who makes and sells bottled sauces, jams, chutneys and pickles using organic ingredients. Her products also keep with traditional ayurvedic medicinal concepts, which are based on holistic, natural remedies.

“Finding The Good Market was like discovering a soul mate,” she says. “When I heard about the concept, my heart connected at once!”

Kumari says she values the opportunity to interact with her customers, which she could not enjoy if her products sat on a shelf in a supermarket.

Networking among vendors has also stimulated dialogue about sustainable and ethical business practices and collaboration on new products. Butter Boutique, a stall that sells homemade desserts, uses organic milk from Eyrie to make its ice cream. Several organic farmers in Islander Organic’s network have formed collectives to supply fresh produce for Saaraketha’s weekly home-delivery service in Colombo and for export to the Middle East and Maldives.

Vendors are also developing new business plans that do not rely on high-interest bank loans. And they prioritize sustainable practices such as paying fair wages to workers and sourcing raw ingredients from like-minded ethical producers.

“The Good Market proves that you can do business that is good – good for people, good for the planet and good for your profit line, too,” Hettiarachchi says.

Customers say they hope the market continues to grow to offer access to organic products nationwide.

“I think Good Market has filled a real void in Sri Lanka,” Wickramasuriya says. “I hope it soon becomes a daily or even weekend market and that we can find Good Markets wherever we travel in Sri Lanka.”

Some interviews were translated from Sinhala.