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Reinvigorating Sri Lanka’s Ceylon cinnamon exports

Ceylon cinnamon is made from the thin inner bark of the Cinnamomum zeylanicum Blume tree, and is native to the “Spice Island” of Sri Lanka.  Compared to the hard, hollow and cylinder-shaped Cassia cinnamon - the most common cinnamon available on the international market, Ceylon cinnamon has a pliable texture and can be rolled like a cigar. It is finer, softer and more aromatic in flavour. Moreover, it is considered to be healthier because it contains a much lower level of coumarin, an organic chemical compound contained in all types of cinnamon, which is believed to have toxic effects when consumed in high doses.

Thanks to these pleasant features, Ceylon cinnamon is hailed as the “true” cinnamon by consumers around the world. For years, Sri Lanka has been the world’s leading supplier of Ceylon cinnamon, accounting for 85 per cent of global market share. The spice is the country’s third largest agricultural export product, supporting the livelihood of over 70,000 smallholder growers and providing jobs to over 350,000 people.

However, over the past decade, international demand for Ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka has gradually diminished compared to the lower-priced cassia. A comparatively higher price is undoubtedly the foremost cause, but the local producers’ failure to comply with international food safety regulations and hygiene standards is a more profound one. For instance, since July 2004, Sri Lanka has encountered problems with cinnamon consignments exported to the European Union due to high levels of residual sulphur dioxide. In addition, the domestic spice industry faces a labour shortage because many workers have emigrated to other countries, and it’s hard to attract new workers due to the prevailing social stigma attached to the cinnamon processing sector.

In an effort to revitalize Sri Lanka’s Ceylon cinnamon position on the global market, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Standards and Trade Development Facility of the World Trade Organization have been working together with the country’s Spice Council, which represents private and public stakeholders in the cinnamon industry, to implement a project that helps improve the trade competitiveness of the cinnamon value chain.

Within the framework of the project, a nationally accredited vocational training framework was created for cinnamon field and factory operations. The project focuses on promoting internationally acceptable hygiene standards and internationally recognized food safety certifications, and, to promote best practices in food safety, a pilot Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification was introduced for the first time in the cinnamon industry.  

So far, six cinnamon processing centres have gained the GMP certification through the project. The Kahawatte Plantation is one of them. A previously dilapidated building, located about 95 kilometers away from the capital, Colombo, the Kahawatte Plantation has been practicing cinnamon production for years, but the workers there had never received training on food safety and hygienic standards. With the help of the project, the centre’s infrastructure has been completely refurbished, and the 86 workers, the majority of them women, are now working in compliance with international regulations and standards.

During a GMP-awareness event organized by UNIDO, Indrajith Rukmal, a representative of the Kahawatte Plantation, said: “Despite the challenges at the beginning, the positive mindset and enthusiasm of UNIDO experts helped the workers overcome all difficulties and gain GMP certification for the centre.” 

“The GMP initiative helped the management to carry out factory activities in a much more organized way. It improved workers’ performance, contributed to a safe and worker-friendly environment and enabled the factory to employ more people, especially more women workers,” said Rukmal.

The UNIDO Project Mananger, Ali Badarneh, said that “the GMP initiative was a turning point for the traditional operators, inasmuch it has put the cinnamon processing system in a more industrialized way”.

“As the next step, we will support the development of a cinnamon-specific GMP standard in Sri Lanka and promote GMP among other processers in the country,” he added. 

The project is also assisting Sri Lanka with reviving its Pure Ceylon cinnamon brand and obtaining a Geographical Indication certificate for its cinnamon, which will grant an exclusive identity for this spice and hopefully help the country regain its leading position in the global cinnamon trade.


By Gabor Molnar and  ZHONG Xingfei