Odiris – the man, the industry and the vision
He revolutionized the Lankan kitchen in the fifties with semi- mechanised coconut scraper.
“Around 1959 he owned a small Fiat Car and while participating in a motor car parade, he fitted a table into his car and got two beautiful damsels to demonstrate coconut scraping with his machine and in turn it provided a great impetus in the sales of his products, as the following day the picture of his car and the coconut scraping demonstration was flashed in all the newspapers in their front pages. The exposure enabled him to be invited to participate at an industrial exhibition at Campbell Park Borella, by the then Minister of Industries. At that exhibition he came to know that there were moves by another company to import kerosene cookers. Immediately Odiris Perera went into manufacture kerosene oil stoves indicating that his industrious dexterity could meet any challenge.” – By Quintus Perera
Until the end of the first half of the 20th century or little beyond Sri Lankan housewives used three major items in their kitchens – viz. the chili grinding stone, mortar and pestle and most importantly the coconut scraper.
The housewives used these three implements to do all their work in the kitchen, whether it was to powder, crush, liquidize and for many other purposes. These implements have now been long replaced and average kitchen today resembles a mini factory with electronically operated grinders, liquidizers, beaters, mixers and many other machines. While the coconut scraper used for many other purposes like the women to sit on it and attend to cutting, peeling etc, nothing could yet replace it. One valiant item in the agenda of the politicians during election time would be revolutionizing the kitchen, meaning price reduction of food items, though it never materialized.
Yet there was one man who was able to revolutionize the Sri Lankan kitchen as far back as 1952, with the introduction of the semi-mechanized coconut scraper to replace the conventional one blade coconut scraper. He is none other than N.W. Odiris Perera
The revolution was not the introduction of the semi-mechanized coconut scraper, but the introduction of a table to the Sri Lankan kitchen to fix the new coconut scraper which was so popular and were selling like hot cakes. Hitherto the Sri Lankan housewife was used to attend to all the kitchen work by squatting or seated on the conventional coconut scraper. Thus they were compelled to work in style on the table standing.
Perera was born in 1914 in Arawwala and as it was the tradition those days he followed his father to join the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) as a mechanical apprentice during the good old days of versatile General Manager of Railways B. D. Rampala.
This young man Odiris with his exceptional engineering skills did not find happiness in the CGR and was determined to start some engineering manufacturing and be on his own.
At the age of 92 years Odiris Perera is still an active man as the Chairman/Managing Director, Oridis Engineering Co (Pvt) Ltd, makers of the well-known coconut scraping machines. In an interview with The Nation Economist he said that he worked in the CGR for a few years and retired prematurely hoping to venture into his own manufacturing business.
At a time when English and German products were well established in the local market and famous for their versatility, quality and strength, young Perera thought it a great risk to commence his manufacture. So, he said he joined one of his close relative’s vehicle repair garage, where he got a free hand to experiment as he wished while attending to motor vehicle repair work. He was determined to out-beat the well established English and German products and he thought that he must produce something unmatched, non-competitive. His mind sailed into the idea of manufacturing the semi-mechanized coconut scraper, which cannot be replaced with any alternative machines.
It was in 1952 that he manufactured two or three coconut scraping machines putting all his ideas together. He took these machines to string hopper makers who used large a number of coconuts to make the ‘Sambol’, for test runs. Perera said that when he visited those places to find out the conditions of his maiden manufacture, he found that some of them had broken while being used.
His determination outpaced the discouragement and he took them back and applying his alternate mechanical techniques, re-modeled his original product with some changes to instill strength. His second attempt was successful. Perera with only preliminary education as the case was with many during those days started making the coconut scraping machines in small quantities and launched his long grueling journey to great success.
He was everything – manufacture, marketer, transporter and product promoter. Whatever the quantity he manufactured, he took time off from the garage and took them to various hardware and other stores. He was delighted to learn that all what he produced was fast selling. By one year he quit the garage and put up his workshop at Dutugemunu Road, Pamankada. The factory is still maintained at this original place where he started his mass production more than half a century ago.
He took his novel little machine to Hunters which at that time was managed by all Englishmen. After a careful inspection of the machine those Englishmen rejected the Coconut Scraping machine saying it was not locally turned out as some dismantled parts of imported products had gone into it. He went back to his factory and overnight he turned out another coconut scraping machine out of brass sheet and inscribed the brand name while in the process of manufacture. Looking at the brass finished machine Hunters were convinced that it was a genuine locally manufactured product.
During the British dominated business in Sri Lanka it was extremely difficult to produce anything locally as the imported items were on one hand was cheap and on the other, if the locally manufactured item had any substitutes, the English merchants would glut the market with the imported substitute forcing the local manufacturer to put up shutters no sooner he commences his manufacture. Perera was very lucky because nobody could ever beat him with any substitute.
After the second world war in the 1950s with great awakening in the industrial and economic sectors, there was an economic resurgence world over that people were moving into new developing townships and in Sri Lanka his luck increased with the emergence of import restrictions imposed in the country and thus there was a big boost for national ventures.
Unlike other business people who normally resorted to various modern management techniques to use tools to boost their business like extensive advertising, Perera did not advertise much, but the quality of the product spoke for itself. He applied a novel way of advertising at one occasion.
Around 1959 he owned a small Fiat Car and while participating in a motor car parade, he fitted a table into his car and got two beautiful damsels to demonstrate coconut scraping with his machine and in turn it provided a great impetus in the sales of his products, as the following day the picture of his car and the coconut scraping demonstration was flashed in all the newspapers in their front pages.
The exposure enabled him to be invited to participate at an industrial exhibition at Campbell Park Borella, by the then Minister of Industries. At that exhibition he came to know that there were moves by another company to import kerosene cookers. Immediately Odiris Perera went into manufacture kerosene oil stoves indicating that his industrious dexterity could meet any challenge.
All machines to turn out these implements were made by himself in his factory at Pamankada and by 1970s his industry was well established. During that time there was the importation and the demand for pressure lanterns. He also ventured to manufacture the pressure lantern and was able to first manufacturing the head part of the pressure lantern. But Odiris Engineering could not make much progress, the rural electrification began. Thus the demand for pressure lanterns diminished, but he continued the manufacture, until the liberalization of the economy came into effect in 1980s.
Misfortune struck Odiris Engineering when in 1985 on a non-payment of a wrongly prepared Electricity bill by the Ceylon Electricity Board, the power supply to his factory was snapped, and he had to get into an arduous legal wrangle. He won the case and was awarded a huge compensation and immediately he started working on his industry and soon was able to resurrect the lost glory in his venture.
Odiris Perera said that with the boom in his industry, he turned his sole ownership of the business into a limited liability company and got his three sons – N W Wilson Perera, Karunasiri Perera and Jayasiri Perera into the fold of the new company. Being engineering geniuses they also could work alongside their father neck to neck.
Since 1987 there were tremendous improvements to Odiris Engineering. Along with the Coconut scraping machine several other products were introduced to the market, but these products were carefully selected. To avoid the danger of women using the knives pressing the handle side to their body and the other side to the wall when cutting in standing position, he introduced a folding safety knife that could be fitted into the table the same way as the coconut scraping machine.
The firm also has introduced to the market, the ‘Manna’ knife and several other knives to be used in the kitchen. Odiris Engineering has improved on the semi-mechanized scraper into a electrically operational machine. The firm also commenced manufacturing the conventional scraping gadget with slight modification to facilitate the convenience of the housewives in the far remote areas where there is space and time to use them, unlike in the towns.
While also maintaining exports to Maldives and West Indies and also Fiji Islands the growth of Odiris Engineering seems to be gravely handicapped due to the space problem in Pamankada. They are getting over the land crisis as the government has recognized the great national service Odiris Engineering has rendered in upholding the local industry for more than half a century and have offered land at Ratmalana Industrial Zone at concessionary prices.
Odiris Engineering has already started constructing a modern factory in Ratmalana and they hope to move in by the beginning of 2007. There are several new innovative products in the pipe line but the company thinks it is too early to publicize them. They would surprise the market and there is no doubt they will further revolutionize the kitchen.