58-year-old P Omana showed off proud burns on her finger caused by the biting cashew juice. Having worked as a cashew peeler for 35 years, initially she never wore safety gloves as she was an expert in freeing kernel from the hot shell without scratches or breaks using a small wooden hammer.
Her long years of work helped her marry her two daughters and build a two-room house with the help of a loan from a cooperative bank in Kollam, in southern Kerala. Her husband, a laborer, died when she was 32 years old.
Now Omana is among 200,000 odd cashew workers made unemployed in the Kollam district and neighboring areas in the last four years. The condition of countless factories in the area is no better.
Without a job, Omana frequents her closed cashew factory for backlog sometimes. She was paid 35 for shelling one kg raw cashew nuts and 45 for peeling the core. A top-class kernel expert, she once took 500 days in the last days of her work in 2017. Now she’s just working with a nearby self-help group 200 to noon.
The home of the owner of the factory where Omana worked is already mortgage for non-payment of loans, and he died two years ago. His son now lives in a rented house and pleads for helplessness.
“I have to get paid six months from my firm. In red, my owner committed suicide two years ago,” says another peeler K Vijaya (48) from Paripally.
The story is the same for more than 80 percent of these workers, who belong to socially and economically weaker strata.
Cashew factory owners often blame high wages and militant unions for their plight, but a close look at the industry shows that both workers and employers are in the hardest hit. Unable to bear enormous losses and mortgages, six cashew factory owners have committed suicide in the last few years, industry insiders say.
Luckily due to high value and quick returns, many jumped into the fray. But now only pioneers and well-hidden ones remain drifting, while others fell to the side or took other pastures.
The port city south of Kerala Kollam was once known for many years as the cashew capital of the world. Their exporters once decided on the global price of the nuts. The district produced some well-known business tycoons such as the late Rajan Pillai (Britannia), K Ravindran Nair aka Achani Ravi, K Parameswaran Pillai and Thangal Kunju Musliar.
Kollam’s cashew industry, once the highest earner from forex (foreign exchange) to basmati rice, is a shadow of its former self. In the past, more than 780 licensed cashew factories operated, which has now been reduced to less than 80. In the 1980s and 1990s, cashew export peaked at 125,000 metric tons, which is scaling up to less than 20,000 m tons. According to oldtimers, once entering the city, the burning smell of cashew shells wafted through the air. Now old borders, noisy factories, dark chimneys and helpless workers bear witness to his downfall.
The reasons are many, say industry insiders.
“Stagnant mechanization, small-scale agriculture, militant trade unionism, excessive government interference and protectionism and competition from other countries have broken the backbone of the industry,” said third-generation cashew businessman Pratap R Nair, owner of Vijayalakshmi Cashews Limited (VLC) with a conversion of 450 crore. The company was a leading brand in the country.
At its peak, the country imported raw cashews from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, on a large scale and process. Exporting agents from Vietnam who came here quickly learned tricks of the trade and introduced it there in the 1980s, which quickly put the port city in the pipeline. When the industry collapsed, the high 9.3 percent import tax on raw cashews shook it further in 2006, although it was reduced to 2.5% two years later.
“Cashew farming in Kerala was also depleted when people switched to rubber and other fast-growing crops. After the Gulf boom, there was intense pressure on land to build houses. In the past, agricultural land was a status symbol in the state, but now it is big. Although cashews do not require or supply excess fertilizers, cultivation slows down, “said P Sundaran, chairman of the Cashew Export Promotion Council of India and MD of Sreelakshmi Cashew Enterprises, a company with a 100-crore turnover.
HISTORY OF CASHEW IN KERALA
In India, cashew, a resident of Brazil, is believed to have been introduced five centuries ago by Portuguese explorers. Initially it was introduced in Goa and later extended to the Malabar coast. The tropical and humid climate of the coast helped it to flourish. With a booming port, Arab and Chinese traders soon began frequenting Kollam, trade historians say.
Industry experts say that at the beginning of the 20th century, Kollam changed the world’s cashew capital, producing the best quality nuts. The records show that the first commercial cashew processing was started by Rocha Victoria, a Sri Lankan who migrated to the city in 1924. Two years later, a British WT Anderson founded Indian Nut Company Factory, the first export company in the city. .
Cashew was considered an elite snack, but after the 1990s it became more common among people. Data from Cashew Export Promotion Council show that the country overcame the largest consumer, the US, five years ago. In 2019, the country consumed 275,000 metric tons against US 183,900. Consumption went manifold to the widespread use in sweets, cookies and flavors. In payasam, burfi and a thickener in curries and medicines, cashew is used everywhere.
In India, cashew is cultivated over 1.2 million hectares of land, with a productivity of 706 kg per hectare, according to government data from 2020. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal are among the major producers.
In Kollam, an average of 800,000 tons of raw cashews are imported for processing each year, and at least 20 percent of the export quality cores are from here – in the past that was more than 60 percent. As global demand for cashews grew, India began importing series of nuts in the 1960s. Between 1995 and 2015, compound annual growth was 3.1 percent, while domestic demand grew to 5.3 percent, according to the Cashew Export Promotion Council of India (CEPCI), and to bridge this gap, the country began to importing Africa and Asian countries.
“We can not depend on imports to run the industry in India, because many African countries have started processing cashews locally. We have to scale up the production of cashews domestically to get out of the deplorable situation. Although cashew cultivation not much care and less manure needed, failed to attract growers, especially in Kerala, “said RK Bhoodes, an expert in the field of cashew, who conducted extensive studies on the utility and was a former chairman of the CEPCI.
He said the land yield should increase from the current 706 kg per hectare to more than 3000 kg per hectare, and it can be done with good planning, implementation and support from all sides. Although the country developed many types of high yields and replaced senile trees, improved agricultural techniques are needed for sustainability, he said.
“What happened to coconut in Alapuzha, happens with cashew in Kollam. We failed to change over time. Although it is very labor intensive with a 90 percent of women, it never got the consideration it needed. “Trade unions also played their part in stopping modernization. Kollam needs a cashew-revival package from both union and state governments. Otherwise, the once powerful industry will be forgotten,” said Kollam deputy NK Premachandran.
There are 33 different types of notes, but only 26 are available for purchase, experts said. Nuts are categorized based on size, color and moisture content. W-180 is the best and price five-six times to normal quality W-320, the most popular re and widely available grade. The broken nut market is also in demand for bakery and flavor industry. Cashew shell oil is widely used in the paint and adhesive sectors.