Coconut drink to drop liquor tag, to keep growers in high spirits

Written by M Sarita Varma | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: May 17 2013, 06:26am hrs
Kerala has zeroed in on tender coconut water, with less than 8% alcohol, to keep its coconut growers in high spirits. The new tender coconut water drink, dubbed Neera, will start competing with similar products from coconut-producing countries, before the Asean agreement is in place in April, 2014. Although 93 of the 94 coconut-growing countries in the world make Neera-type drinks, the state of Kerala, with 180 million coconut trees, is yet to make a similar venture.

We intend to promote it as a non-alcoholic health drink, said state excise minister K Babu. In Thailand, a 330 ml can of coconut water is sold at around R160. By the commercial viability report that we have before us, Neera can be sold at R100 per litre, he told FE.

Apart from Kerala, which produces about 600 crore coconuts per year, the main producers of coconut are West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Orissa. The major markets of tender coconut drink within the country are Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Bangalore. The organised tender coconut water industry has been growing at a rate of 20% to 25%.

An expert committee that studied the potential of channelising Keralas ailing coconut industry to Neera had submitted its report last week. It stated that the proposed health drink, despite being of a sweet variety, could even be consumed by diabetic patients. Secondly, it had a lot of body-building proteins. Further, it turns into toddy after it is fermented for hours after being taken from the coconut tree and has an alcohol content of 5 to 8%.

There is, however, a legal hitch. To exonerate it as a non-alcoholic beverage, the State Abkari Act has to be revamped. This legal measure will have to be expedited, since the Asean agreement will be effective from next April and similar products from neighbouring countries will start flowing smoothly across the borders. To effectively compete with them, Neera has to be market-ready before April, said Anil Xavier, state excise commissioner.

Kerala has about 29,536 toddy tappers, according to the latest statistics. The state is committed to protecting their interests as well as the interests of the 10 lakh coconut farmers. The committee found that the drink represented a timely market shift that all stakeholders would find profitable.

According to VK Raju, associate director (R&D), Kerala Agricultural University, the commercial prospects of the new product run quite high. Even if sold at R100 per litre, Neera can fetch the coconut farmer a monthly income of R1,200 per tree, he said.