Vegetables are still transported in plastic, burlap, locally produced coconut-husk fibre bags or homemade wooden boxes, stacked tightly in trucks, causing severe wastage en route. This lack of proper storage reduces the length of time produce can last, said Brian Roberts, a professor at the Australia-based University of Canberra, who has researched Sri Lanka's food supply chain.
"The transport systems to local markets and national markets are not good, resulting in a high level of damage to fruit and vegetables. There is also a loss in the handling of food and vegetables along the various stages of the supply line."
Most drivers visit regional supply centres (government buildings rented by private suppliers), such as the main one in Dambulla in Central Province, to purchase produce.
"The more we transport the more money we make," Ajith Wijesinghe, a driver, told IRIN.
By the time the vegetables are delivered to clients in the suburbs of the capital, Colombo, some 150km away, Wijesinghe said the produce had gone through at least four transactions. "The farmer will sell to a village supplier. He will then sell to a regional supplier. We buy from the regional supplier and sell to our buyers."
Multiple handling means more costs on top of the wastage, noted Roberts. "At each one of the stages, agents would take commissions and [there] will be additional costs associated with handling food."
Wijesinghe, 50, said he had never received any kind of training or instructions on transporting or stacking vegetables in more than two decades of work. "I don't think anyone in this business has."
Transporters care little about food loss and worry more about getting products to the buyer on time, said Haridas Fernando, deputy general manager of agribusiness at Cargills Ceylon, one of Sri Lanka's largest private wholesale vegetable buyers.
"Our market orientation is still such that transporters feel their job is to transport and nothing else."
Cargills has tried to cut down on losses over the past decade by setting up 11 regional buying centres that purchase directly from farmers, buying more trucks and hiring handlers. It also advises some 10,000 farmers on stacking, transport and quality control.
"We transport in crates. Overall we probably record a wastage level of about 3 percent," said Fernando.
Working more closely with farmers helps to cut losses, noted Roberts.
"Shortening the supply chain means reducing the number of steps in the process from when food leaves the farm until it is consumed. The way of doing this is that supermarkets buy directly from farmers under contract."
Over the past decade Cargills has brought costs down by about 10 percent, said Fernando.
But increasing efficiency had initial costs for the company - trucks, warehouses and plastic crating.
Recently the government tried to legislate crates as compulsory for vegetable transport, but
backed down when drivers and wholesalers protested, as local media reported. The law now only applies to a limited number of fruit and vegetables.
Werrakoddi Arachchige Premadasa, a farmer from the rural town of Tanamalvilla, about 300km southeast of Colombo, said most farmers were still reluctant to invest in crates, which cost on average US$8 each. Bags measuring 120cm by 60cm take up less space and are cheaper, added the farmer, who supplies to Cargills in crates he purchased in 2008.
|Precarious packaging for produce en route|
Crates have cut his waste to almost zero, boosting his average monthly income by close to $80 in a country where the average monthly income is close to $200.
Produce lost in Sri Lanka is greater than in other countries in the region, said Roberts. Until public transport conditions - including railways, roads and government-owned trucks - and delivery systems improve, private companies will be the only ones able to afford cutting post-harvest food losses, he added.
"There are significant inefficiencies in the way that the government supply chains work in Sri Lanka. Much of the infrastructure, such as goods handling and railway systems owned by government facilities, are old and result in significant damage to perishable food."
According to L.P. Rupasena, deputy director of research at the government-run Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute: "We need a fully integrated market, where packing [and] distribution are streamlined to ensure the delivery of quality goods. We don't have such a system in place yet. As long as we don't invest to organize the distribution network, the introduction of crates will not work."
During the past three decades, less than 5 percent of the funding provided for horticultural
development worldwide has gone on post-harvest factors, while the rest has gone towards
increasing production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.