Kerala chilli kanthari
Kanthari chilli collection in progress at a cooperative bank in Kerala. Image Credit: Supplied

Kanamala (Kottayam): Falling prices for rubber, frequent destruction of food crops by wild elephants, boars and monkeys and COVID-19-related setbacks to the general economy had combined to deal a triple whammy for the Kanamala village in Kerala’s Kottayam district.

Villagers in Kanamala, hardly 20km from popular pilgrim centre Sabarimala, were at their wits’ end when boars uprooted banana plants, monkeys feasted on cocoa pods and wild elephants trampled on crops on their way to fetch jackfruit.

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Brainstormed idea

That was when the local Kanamala Service Co-operative Bank had a brain-storming session that yielded an agricultural solution that would beat the challenges posed by wildlife and yield a remunerative price for farmers – growing the native Bird’s Eye chilli, known locally as kanthari.

Backed by the assurance of the bank that it would buy all the chilli that villagers grew at an assured Rs 250 per kg, hundreds of families in the village took to kanthari farming, and are now beaming beneficiaries of a new revenue stream during the financially trying times of the lockdown.

Binoy Jose

“When we dug deep into the problems faced by the farmers, we found that more than any support they needed in terms of crop subsidy or tech input, what farmers needed was an assured price for their produce. We offered them Rs 250 per kg for kanthari, even if the market price fell below that, and that was all the motivation they needed,” Kanamala Service Co-operative Bank president Binoy Jose told Gulf News.

Calculated risk

The bank had taken a calculated risk because there existed no formal market for kanthari, one of the hottest native chilies of Kerala. “We knew there was a risk in assuring such a high price to the famers, but we thought if we had to sell the chilli at less than procurement price, we would use the bank’s common good fund to make up the loss. Instead, we have been able to sell what we procured very easily and profitably,” says Jose.

Despite the COVID-19-inflicted constraints, Kanamala’s kanthari crop has been lapped up by leading vegetable markets in the state, and now export enquiries are building up.

A kanthari chilli farm in Kerala
A kanthari chilli farm in Kerala Image Credit: Supplied

Export opportunity

“Export firms are asking us whether we can supply in containers, for shipment to the European and US markets where chilies are being used for various purposes including as ingredient in painkillers,” says Jose.

On alternate Tuesdays when the bank procures kanthari, local residents from school children to octogenarians now queue up to sell the kanthari they have gathered from homestead farms.

Spinoff successes

Riding the kanthari revolution are some niche successes as well, like that of Abin K Thomas, a youth with a Master of Computer Application degree under his belt whose plans to begin a career in Bengaluru were disrupted by COVID-19. Thomas has already grown 10,000 kanthari saplings and supplied to eager growers in the village at Rs 5 apiece, prompting some others also to get into the kanthari nursery business.

Too hot for their palates, the wild boars, monkeys and tuskers in the neigbourhood forests enveloping the Sabarimala temple can only grin and bear Kanamala’s kanthari revolution.