A version of this story originally appeared on the Land O'Lakes Inc. blog.

The coconut tree gives a Sri Lankan community hope

The humid sea breeze sways the palms above. It’s a sunny blue day. A coconut tumbles down from 100 feet overhead. It doesn’t break. In fact, coconuts are so strong that scientists are looking into using them for space crafts. Tough as they may be, they are no match for Kanni Mankaytkarasy.

Confident and calm, Kanni leans over, picks the coconut up. Scars cover her hands. She holds the coconut in her left hand, a machete in her right and cracks it open with one thwack. In her home of Sri Lanka, an island nation near the southern coast of India, people use every piece of coconut trees. The shell to make dishes, the husk to make rope, the vitamin-rich kernel for eating. It’s no wonder it’s known here as the tree of life.

Photo courtesy of land o'lakes international development

Photo courtesy of land o'lakes international development

(Coco)nuts for development

As a U.S. agribusiness, Land O’Lakes, Inc. may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘coconuts.’ But for them, Feeding Human Progress comes in many forms. For example, they’ve been cheering on Land O’Lakes International Development, a nonprofit that has been leveraging their expertise in dairy, crops and agribusiness development for 36 years.

This independently operating nonprofit implements agricultural development projects around the world that transform lives for generations. In Sri Lanka, through the USAID-funded VEGA/BIZ+ program, the International Development team is working to support businesses that boost economic growth and create jobs in post-conflict communities: Communities like Kanni’s.

Kanni grew up in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northern province and the center of the nation’s 26-year long civil war that only ended in 2009. On a peninsula surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Jaffna civilians like Kanni and her father were separated from the mainland during the war. With no way in and no way out, supplies were limited. They survived by making good use of things like coconut, using the palms to thatch a roof, the sweet water to quench their thirst and the oil to cook their meals. It wouldn’t be the only time that a coconut would help Kanni survive.

When Kanni was 15, she lost her father to the war. She was sent to live with her aunt. It wasn’t a happy place, so when the war’s insurgency recruiters from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to town offering Kanni security and a better life, she took what she thought was the better of two options. She was 22-years-old when she went off to the front line.

Kanni doesn’t say much about the years that followed. Her tearing eyes and scarred arms fill in some of the blanks. After the conflict ended, as an ex-combatant it was tough for Kanni to find work. She struggled for years, living day-by-day as a laborer. Kanni’s life was transformed by a familiar friend: the coconut.

Coming back to the coconut

In 2017, Kanni was hired full-time at the Yharl coconut mill; the tree of life kept on giving.

Today, the Yharl coconut oil production mill is bustling. It smells, well, like coconut. And the sea. The floor is spotless. Kanni has been working here since it expanded this past February. She is one of thirty or so employees tending to machinery, barefoot, because that’s what you do in Sri Lanka.

Yharl started out as a two-employee operation selling de-husked coconuts wholesale to local markets and fiber factories in Jaffna. After the war, Yharl owner Rejin Thileepan saw social issues take over his community.

“Women were widowed and without jobs. We wanted to help,” he says. “That’s when we put in a grant proposal to Land O’Lakes International Development – we wanted to expand to coconut oil production. That type of mill would not only help our business grow but also provide job opportunities.”

Coconut oil, which gets extracted from the coconut milk, is commonly used in Sri Lanka for cooking, and for skin and hair care. In 2016, through VEGA BIZ+, USAID provided Yharl a matching grant to build the oil production mill, purchase equipment and buy a truck for hauling coconuts. “It’s not only provided jobs, but also helped the local farmers,” says Dr. Umapathisivan, Yharl manager and cofounder.

“One tree bears 10-15 coconuts per month. I sell about 400 coconuts a month,” says a Koneswaren, a smallholder coconut farmer. “Before, I didn’t have a reliable income. Now, my profits have doubled. And because of Yharl, our village has an opportunity to work.”

photo courtesy of land o'lakes international development

photo courtesy of land o'lakes international development

A livelihood from tree to oil

With coconuts coming from close to 40 Jaffna smallholder farmers, Yharl now produces coconut oil for 30 buyers. Kanni is one of 34 employees with a steady income, a savings account and a supportive community to call home.

“Everyone is friendly with me. My father taught me to be peaceful, to treat everyone as family. I want to always be at peace with everyone. To forget…,” she trails off, then turns to walk back into the mill.

With a freshly de-husked coconut still in hand, Kanni’s demeanor instantly changes when she walks into the mill. She proudly explains each piece of equipment, and the process of getting a coconut from tree to oil starts to come to life.

First the coconuts get de-husked. This is the most labor intensive part of the day because some of the trucks that arrive carry thousands of coconuts. The coconuts then go through a process of drying, cutting, crushing, extraction and a quality check before the oil is ready for packaging. Finally, the truck is loaded for same day delivery to the customer. On a typical day, Kanni and her colleagues produce 400 liters of coconut oil. Byproducts are sold to livestock farmers, and the husk fibers are sold to a rope producer. Yharl is Sri Lankan to the core – it uses every piece of the coconut.

Kanni smiles, “We all rotate jobs each day. It makes me happy to see the process and the final product of our work.”  

Yharl employees are happy. Productivity is high. Profits are high. Business is good. Yharl has plans to open a second mill, maybe in Trincomalee, another post-conflict city on the east coast.

And, Yharl is just one of 50 businesses getting financial and business development support from the USAID-funded VEGA BIZ+ program, implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development. Since the program’s start in 2011, these small businesses have created over 6,500 jobs and income opportunities for agriculture producers.

The Sri Lankan way of life

It’s been 20 years since Kanni left her home to join a war that was never meant for her. A lot has changed. Her family is now the community that took her back in. She doesn’t take that lightly. Her extra income goes to neighbors in need, and every week, she volunteers at the local school.

At the same time, Kanni is still her father’s daughter. Her struggles have proven that she is nearly unbreakable, and sweet to the core. Kind of like a coconut.