Organic Juice Bar in Jaffna – Finally

7 Jun

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Once upon a time, the agricultural peninsula of Jaffna was known for many other things apart from the war! Karuthakolomban mangoes, luscious jackfruits, juicy guavas…

They still exist albeit with one innovation; more poison than Snow White’s stepmother ploughed into her apple. The average Sri Lankan farmer figures quite high on the world index for his excessive use of agro-chemicals. And the Northern Sri Lankan farmer, in stiff competition with the Southern Sri Lankan farmer (as well as the Army), perhaps uses agro chemicals the most.

‘Organic’ is not a term that the average Jaffnaite is familiar with yet. Ask for fruits or vegetables that have been grown organically and you get incredulous looks or guffaws in the market place. Yet, many people are aware of the poison and stay away from items like cabbage – and even more heartbreakingly – mangoes, at the market. To consume these is a sure-fire way to fall ill here.

It was quite a pleasant surprise therefore to come across a juice bar, advertising ‘chemical free’ juices made from ‘naturally ripened’ fruits opposite the railway station in Meesalai, Jaffna!

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Inside, the fare offered was indeed fresh and tasty – and at Rs.60 – 80 per glass on average, was half the price of similar fresh fruit juices in Colombo.

What the average Northerner thinks of it however is open to debate. As I drank my juice, I could hear my true-blue Jaffna mother’s voice ringing in my ears: “You paid Rs.80 for Papaya juice? Why can’t you pluck one of our own papayas and blend it in the mixer if you want papaya juice? Your generation is so spendthrift. In my day…”

According to the Juice Bar Pazhamuthisolai’s center manager C.S.S Kandan however, he does get a regular clientele, mostly young professionals working in the area, who are grateful for the alternative to artificial sodas or tea /coffee, to quench their thirst.

“Many educated young people here are aware of the negative effects of agro-chemicals and thus the demand for organic products is actually quite high in Jaffna” says Kandan. “Since the agri-business for whatever reason is not catering to that demand, many people don’t realize the extent of the need. Our services are quite highly valued here.”

He adds, “In keeping with that demand, we add no artificial products or additives whatsoever. Not even emulsifiers to our juices as they do in many juice bars in Colombo. The result might be less frothy and tasty, but it is guaranteed 100% natural – and we are very proud of that label.”

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So how did this juice bar, which is a bit of an anomaly in artificial sweeteners and colourful additives addicted Jaffna come into being? It turns out to be quite a fascinating tale in itself – a tale of how a community project, with the collaboration of Government Officials, Aid Agencies and the community themselves can be a roaring success.

It all started when A.I (Agricultural Instructor, assigned by the government to agricultural villages) Vijayakumar was transferred to Meesalai, a part of the bounteous fruit bearing region of Thenmaraatchi..

He found that nearly all homes had fruit trees in their back yard – but they were not sold / used commercially. “They are grown as a matter of honour here” explains Kandan, the manager. “A Meesalai man would not have any standing as a citizen here if he didn’t cultivate a variety of fruit trees in his home garden. But since they are not commercially grown, they are organic and chemical free.”

They were also low in yield, compared to commercially grown orchards. A.I Vijayakumar’s business was to teach farmers how to improve their yield – and he taught this for their privately owned fruit gardens too.

“I gave them tips like proper pruning, tying plastic bags to young bunches of fruits and so on” says Vijayakumar. “The result was improved yields of a bigger size and better quality – but disappointingly these organically grown fruits could only be sold for the same price as the inorganic, commercially produced fruits. Our then Deputy Director of Agriculture, S. Sivakumar figured they deserved better than that – and so we looked for alternate avenues to make use of them.”

And thus was born the Meesalai Pazhamuthirsolai. The Deputy Director of Agriculture and his team first approached Aid Agencies, a number of which were willing to donate to make the juice bar a reality. Both World Vision and the UNDP contributed significantly. They then formed a cooperative of the local farmers – the Thenmaradchy Fruit Producers Sales Cooperative, who convinced their local Velamavadi Pillayar (Ganesh) temple to donate land to them at a prime spot in town. “They very kindly donated four perches of land on 99 years’ lease. If the cooperative makes a success of this venture, they can then retain the land,” says Vijayakumar. The cooperative which originally started with 150 farmers (including 54 women farmers) has since grown to 270 member farmers. The patron for this venture remains the Department of Agriculture, Thirunelvely, Jaffna.

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It remains to be seen though just how popular the venture is. Surprisingly for a peninsula famous for its fruits, fruit juices are still an innovation. Many people here are only used to lime juice and occasionally the woodapple juice as fruit juices, acknowledges Vijayakumar. He however sees it as a positive challenge to introduce something new to the people.

Would they pay for it though? Asked what is to stop them from making the juices in their own homes as opposed to buying at the bar, Kandan elaborates, “The local farmers are not necessarily our clientele. They are the suppliers and if the habit of drinking fruit juices catches up with them, well and good. Our target market are actually the working professionals, tourists and visiting diaspora members.

“While the locals still insist on breaking out sodas by the cartonload at weddings and other functions, the diaspora who hold their weddings here insist on more wholesome beverages. We are thus a huge hit with them. They order packloads of our juices for their functions and events – and eventually this will catch on with our local population too.”

Apart from this, since they have expanded into catering for functions / events, they also offer choice Jaffna savouries and sweets like Mothagam , Kolukattai, Medu vadai , Kadalai Vadai & Mushroom cutlet. The mushroom is locally produced and offers income for local farmers again.

Apparently the aptly named Pazhamuthisolai (in Tamil: bountiful orchard in which fruits ripen and fall naturally) hasn’t been advertised anywhere to gain popularity. Many people in the country and visiting diaspora, hear of them though word of mouth and contact them, says Kandan. “We recently started supplying fruits to a few star category hotels in Colombo, and have also had some customers from Southern Sri Lanka order fruits from us for their family functions and get-togethers.”

The demand for organic fruits is such that many people from the South are searching them out too, says Kandan – adding that so long as a bus service is available from Jaffna, they are willing to supply to any part of the country.

While juice bars have been popular in Colombo for quite some time though, they are still a new phenomenon to Jaffna. Getting back in the vehicle discussing the drinks, we were interrupted by the driver; “It’s a rip-off Madam! They have just mashed papaya, added sugar and water and charged Rs.80 for it,” he exclaimed.

Well yes! Mashed fruits with sugar and water! As if introducing that was not innovation enough, they have even got ahead of Colombo, in introducing organically produced fruits for the mashed fruits with sugar and water. Will it take off in the peninsula or not? Watch this space!

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You can contact the Pazhamuthirsolai team at palamuthirsolaimeesalai@gmail.com; Contact no: + 94 770 780 240 or + 94 2156 83949.

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