Milkwhite reflects ailing industry in Jaffna

[TamilNet, Friday, 27 February 1998, 23:59 GMT]
There is a tragic similarity between the production of Milk white soap and its manufacturer K. Kanagarajah. They are both no longer in active service. Their predicament is however representative of the malaise that ails the once thriving local industry of Jaffna.

The first name that comes to mind when Jaffna's indigenous manufacture is mentioned, is Milkwhite soap.

The 71 year old proprietor of Milkwhite K. Kanagarajah's pioneering efforts came in for a lot of praise in the book 'Jaffna 1981' by the American writer and scholar Dr. Holmes.

But times changed, the reach of Kanagarajah's business shrank, transport became difficult, the sense of insecurity increased, capital dwindled, there was no insurance cover, banking facilities, electricity or telephones.

The constant displacement of the Jaffna people and the volatile political situation added to the manufacturer's woes.

Difficulties in procuring inputs for manufacture and a dwindling market led inevitably to a dearth of capital.

Loans could not be paid back and this in turn resulted in problems of raising fresh capital - a vicious circle.

Mr. Kanagarajah recently reminisced about his life and times in an interview with the Tamil daily Thinakkural.

K. Kanagarajah, one of five children, was compelled to abandon his studies at an early age, because his family could not afford to educate him.

When only 12 years old, he began working with a relative who was a tobacconist at Gampola, near Kandy.

Later he worked with his brother as a rubber-maker at a rubber estate at Ginigathena near Nuwara Eliya.

Soap making began as a family concern, when Kanagarajah's father set it up as a cottage industry.

The son, returning home from his stint outside Jaffna, learnt the ropes of both manufacture and distribution of soap.

Through the perseverance of father and son, Milkwhite was able to compete with even the imported brands.

Milkwhite were the first local concern to add blue - a type of detergent- to soap.

Blue soap, bar soap, medicated soap, washing powder, were among the repertoire of brands that rolled out of the Milkwhite factories. But that was not all.

Organically produced insecticides and organic fertilizers were also produced by Milkwhite.

"High standards, low price, good distribution and contented employees contributed to the success of the product," said Kanagarajah.

Social service was also a part of Kanagaraja's interests.

Wells were dug, tanks excavated, tree planting campaigns were undertaken to help colonists in the Wanni area by Milkwhite and coconut saplings were distributed for planting.

Hospitals, schools, orphanages and places of worship benefited from the largesse of Milkwhite industries.

"Local demand for domestic manufactures, and the confidence our people had in local products helped us to go forward".

"But times have changed. Many people in Jaffna today are spurred by foreign values, which have contributed to our downfall," said Kanagarajah.

Milkwhite soap alone has not earned Kanagarajah plaudits. His novel method of packaging the product has found many admirers, including Dr. Holmes. But Kanagarajah is modest about his gifts.

"It merely expresses my deep-felt sentiments on the matter" he said.

For instance, without going in for the outer cover for Milkwhite soap, local products were distributed as gifts. This benefited not only Milkwhite, but the manufacture of those products too.

The slogan was 'help us to help you'.

Items made of clay like tills, statuettes of the poet Barathy from the pottery makers in Changanai, or handlooms and other items, were given to the customer free of charge.

Rather than spending money on wrappers for Milkwhite soap, stickers of Thiruvazhuvar, a copy of his picture, or even stanzas of the Thirukkural, were given with the product.

During the Sri Lankan Army operations in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1995, the soap making operation had to be moved to Thenmaraadchi and re-launched on a small scale.

The possibility of an epidemic breaking out there due to severe shortage of soap and other detergents was very real at that time.

"I got a lot of satisfaction because I was able to help the Tamil people at their time of need".

"Values such as tolerance, self-control, unity, perseverance and hard work should be promoted. Everyone should live according to the precepts of the sacred Kural. That is my wish," said Kanagarajah.


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