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Shan Halamba, Riococo, on cleaning the image of coir in horticulture:

"Our research-based approach set new quality standard in Coir Substrate"

Over the last 5 years, the use of coir fiber for growing hydroponic greenhouse crops has gained popularity amongst major growers in many countries. However, some growers are still not convinced about the advantages of the coir slabs made with coco peat. According to Shan Halamba from RioCoco, this is a direct result of mismanagement in the past made by companies flooding the market with bad quality coco peat. "There is a lot of mess that needs to be cleaned up right now", said RioCoco's CEO, who's coco slabs are being used by major growers in 30 countries across the globe, spanning six continents including North America.

In 2003, RioCoco started to research the possibilities of coir fiber raw material in horticulture. "In that time, a lot of impostors were entering the greenhouse industry and supplying the market with low quality coco peat products driven by the story that it was a natural alternative for rockwool", Shan said. "However, these products where made of low quality, inconsistent coco fiber from India and Sri Lanka that was the byproduct of other industries. This waste material was brought into the greenhouses without processing or cleaning and growers thought was ready to use, but actually, most of these material was not usable at all. In fact, it gave coco peat a very bad reputation as a soil-less growing medium."

In order to give coco peat a chance, Shan started RioCoco. "We wanted to do things totally different, with the aim of cleaning the image of coco peat", Shan stated. "By first investing in research and development, we searched for a way to improve the quality and advantages, which in the end resulted in a range of different coir mixes that all have their own properties and advantages. We developed custom fit mixes, precisely designed around the crop's needs."

According to Shan, the custom made mixes caught the attention of growers, while running trials in the USA. "Bryan Hart, New Zealand born hydroponics consultant, who used to base in the USA, introduced our products and convinced some growers to run trials in commercial greenhouses", Shan said. "We obtained a lot of knowledge out of this trial thanks to the feedback we got from the greenhouse growers. Thanks to this we were able to design the optimized mix that had all of the beneficial properties, like the right water holding capacity, propensity to evaporate and so on."

After the sampling, research and test stages, the growers became more and more convinced about RioCoco. "The cultivation specialists at Village Farms, one of the key suppliers of hydroponic grown tomatoes in North America, were very impressed about our coco. In the first year they used our slabs on 5 acres and second year more acres. Eventually, in 2007, they started to use RioCoco on their entire operation in Texas."
Aside from Village Farms, other growers such as Kagome - Japan, got wind of RioCoco causing a stir in the substrate market. "For us, this was a great sign of appreciation for all of the work we were doing all these years. We entered the market with consciousness, and listened to the growers"

In the end it seemed that it was not only the quality of the coir that did the trick. "We are aiming to be very involved in the growers' operations on a very personal level. We own our own factories and are aware of everything that happens in the production process to the product delivery and finally with the advisory service to their growing operation. So basically we control everything. On the other hand, we find most of the new customers through referrals from our existing customers. We still see ourselves as a company, which adopts world class innovative ecofriendly technologies that does business on a personal level. That is something that bears a lot of fruit for us as well."

For more information:
Shan Halamba

Publication date: 3/25/2013
Author: Boy de Nijs



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