“If you tell him he can’t do something, he’ll go at it 200%” says Remon Ellegala, when I ask about his father and Ekoland founder, Nihal.
From the anecdotes which crop-up throughout our morning together, it’s clear that Remon isn’t exaggerating. He refers to a rudimentary processing plant his father knocked-together when he began experimenting with spice growing. He talks about his passion for wild cinnamon, a brief foray into tea-growing and a determination to preserve Sri Lanka’s diverse forests.
The reality is that, as a small business owner in Sri Lanka, agility and the ability to diversify are valuable skills. When Nihal inherited the 13-acre plot of Central Province land in 1993, (which has been in the family since 1896), he spotted a growing potential for eco-tourism. His vision was bang on. Only nothing is ever straightforward.
When Remon and I meet, the 13 eco-lodges at Ekoland are closed. Sri Lanka is experiencing a second wave of Covid and the fragile tourist industry is on its knees. Remon is philosophical though. “In Sri Lanka, if it isn’t a pandemic, then it’s flooding, politics,” he says. “Tourism can be unpredictable. It’s partly why we diversified into spices.”
No wonder. Inspiration was all around them. Ekoland exists within a unique landscape, known as ‘Kandyan Forest Garden’. It’s undisturbed, canopy-dense and diverse: there are mature clove trees, nutmeg, jackfruit, cinnamon, black pepper all growing there – as well as 62 different species of birds on the estate.
Sri Lanka’s big spice plantations are located in the south. It’s where cinnamon is mass cultivated, and what allows the country to be the leading global exporter of True Cinnamon. Production started there because of easy accessibility for European traders – but the Central Highland climate, round Kandy is where mature trees thrive.
It’s why Ekoland is able to produce something quite unique. Nihal selectively farms older, wild cinnamon which thrives within the in the Kandyan Forest Garden. The bark is intensely spicy – quite unlike any cinnamon I’ve tried before. He blends this with younger cinnamon – which is far sweeter – and creates a beautifully-balanced product, which we’re thrilled to be stocking.
The team has grown quickly, and Ekoland now employs 15-20 farmers (dependant on the season) as well as 12 workers in the spice processing plant. The Ellegalas employ locally (the estate is located between three villages) and strive to provide as much female employment as possible, with a 70% rate on the production side: “traditionally, women from this area would work in very target-lead garment factories,” Remon explains, “it’s a great environment in the processing plant, like one big family.”
Investment in the community is a big driver for the Ellegala Family. Not just in terms of local employment, but also the broader environment. Nihal is founder of The Forest Healing Foundation – which has planted 550 trees and restored 7 acres of degraded high biodiversity forest, to date. In spite of a growing demand, his strategy is not to ramp-up production but to focus on replanting, rewilding and producing exquisite quality.
“When it comes to scale, Sri Lanka will never be able to compete with big players like India or Vietnam,” Remon says. “Where we can compete is quality,” he says – and having spent a morning sniffing, tasting the Ekoland spices I’d be hard pushed to argue.
Rooted Spices will be stocking freshly-ground Ekoland True* Cinnamon from 7 October 2021
Look out for Ekoland Ground Ginger, launching soon (autumn 2021)
* Note, we refer to our Cinnamon as ‘True’ Cinnamon (which only grows in Sri Lanka and is called Celyon Cinnamon) to differentiate it from similar but cheaper cassia (‘Chinese cinnamon’: Cinnamomum cassia, Lauraceae)