Kimbula Kithul- Chanchala Gunewardena
If someone had told Chanchala Gunewardena a few years ago that she would one day be the founder of a home-based, agri-food startup through which she would take the delicious and healthy unadulterated Matara kithul treacle to the world, she would not have believed you!
Backed by a degree in English, a master’s in communication and impressive work
experience that includes the likes of Amnesty International and the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, Chanchala returned to Sri Lanka not entirely sure what she wanted to do, but knowing that it had to be something she was passionate about! She soon started consulting at her family’s advertising agency, something she still continues to do today, but she knew she was looking for more social projects - something through which she could impact the lives of others!
Having spent a lot of her childhood visiting her maternal grandparents in Matara and seeing so many family members over the years supporting the local community there, Chanchala was committed to doing the same and spent hours at the Good Market looking at different products that hailed from Matara and meeting local vendors. It wasn’t long before she made a decision to promote the decadent Matara treacle that was otherwise under the radar and what better way to do it than with the unofficial mascot of Matara leading the way- the playful and friendly crocodile referenced in local poems that is synonymous with Matara; and
just like that Kimbula Kithul was born!
When Kimbula Kithul first came to be, Chanchala just looked at it as a branding exercise- something as simple as sourcing the product from Matara kithul farmers, bottling it and selling it under the brand she created. However, she soon realised there was much more to it than just branding and for Kimbula Kithul to be successful, she would need to put in the work and actually learn about the product- why does it bubble, how does heat affect it, what is the backend involved?
Digging deeper into the world of kithul, Chanchala soon came to realise that there was a marked difference between the kithul available at supermarkets and the kithul she’ was used to from Matara! “Consumers often don’t realise that the kithul treacle available at supermarkets are an adulterated version and not the pure treacle that has a low glycemic index which makes it a healthy alternative to refined sugar. Pure kithul sap has a range of antidiabetic, antioxidant and antihypertensive compounds that naturally occur in it. The kithul treacle that’s freely available is usually diluted and contains refined sugar which not only affects the flavour, but minimises the health benefits of the kithul treacle too,” explained
The reason the mass product is often favoured by consumers is because pure kithul treacle is a very precious commodity as it takes a lot of effort, expertise and time to process! For instance, to create just 1 litre of pure kithul treacle, 8-10 litres of kithul sap is required and the process of tapping the palms requires a great deal of effort from the tappers as a single climb only produces a very small amount of sap.
“The kithul treacle industry is just not receiving enough investment and support for it to be sustained and as such many farmers have stopped looking at tapping as a livelihood due to the risks associated with the job and the low demand. Without proper automation the tappers don’t have enough time to focus on increasing yield or taking more time with the process of efficiently boiling down the sap etc, so kithul industry hasn’t developed much at all and unless you own an estate, the pure kithul you purchase comes from a very small group of kithul farmers,” said Chanchala.
Committed to increasing awareness and demand for pure kithul, Chanchala started working closely with a number of kithful farmers in Matara. Apart from building her knowledge of the product so that she would be able to re-process the kithul sap herself after receiving it from the farmers to ensure the stability of the kithul, Chanchala also put her fantastic advertising and communication skills to good use and created a quirky and fun gourmet kithul treacle brand from scratch that grew from strength to strength since its first launch at the Good Market in 2017!
“We knew there was a gap in the market, but we certainly didn’t expect that the demand would be so high and we immediately sold out!. Our goal was to grow the Matara kithul industry and make this amazing product more accessible both commercially and on a smaller scale too at health stores and supermarkets etc. We’ve been so pleased to see this happen so quickly and Kimbula Kithul is now used at many premium restaurants like Nihonbashi, Kaema Sutra, Ministry of Crab, Cafe Kumbuk, Ceylan Creperie and many more,” explained Chanchala
One of the many beauties of pure kithul is that it has such a rich and wide flavour profile that means it’s not just restricted to being used as a sweetener (like the adulterated version is) but that it can be used for cooking in marinades, glazes and much more! Also, Kimbula Kithul contains absolutely no preservatives and is completely natural which means that fermentation occurs quite fast. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing as pure kithul is often quite sweet at the start, but as it ferments the flavour changes. As such, Chanchala usually advises her customers to leave the kithul out until it ferments and hits the flavour note you like. After this, it should be refrigerated so that fermentation stops and the flavour is sustained.
Focused on being as eco-friendly as possible, Kimbula Kithul is stored in glass bottles and all labels are printed on pulp paper. While at the moment Chanchala doesn’t have any plans to expand the Kimbula Kithul product line, she does have a lot that she’s looking to accomplish this year in terms of fine-tuning the existing product, possibly developing an export market for it and most importantly, supporting the advancement of the local kithul industry!