An exclusive interview with Founder Chairman Dr. Ruwan Wathugala
Founded in 1999 by the passionate Dr. Ruwan Wathugala as a means of giving back to the community, Royal Cashews has since grown into one of Sri Lanka’s largest producers and exporters of Ceylon cashew. Alongside the expansion of the enterprise into one of the largest and most modern manufacturers of cashew and cashew products in the island, Royal Cashews has also retained its original founding ethos of giving back to the community, responsible corporate citizenship, and sustainable business.
The company has followed a rigorous programme, guided by the vision of Dr. Wathugala, to empower smallholder producers through knowledge sharing, technological advances, and fair business practices. Through value-addition and advanced production processes, Royal Cashews has helped to develop and harness the potential of Ceylon cashew as a premium export product that is unique worldwide.
In this interview, Dr. Wathugala charts his journey as an entrepreneur and expands on his long-term vision for sustainable Ceylon cashew.
Following are excerpts:
Your story is remarkable. What inspired you to pursue cashew?
In 1999, I was in Colombo Medical College, which I successfully completed and still today I practise my profession alongside my business. However, from the inception, I was always more than grateful for the free education that my country provided for me and I had this yearning to give back. Of course becoming a doctor and serving itself was one way of doing this but I wanted to do more. I wanted to empower others too, to create opportunities to take something Sri Lankan to the world and bring home foreign currency to help develop the country.
Knowing I had a passion for agriculture as well, I began looking into exporting Sri Lankan produce as it would help the country, the farmers, and me to build a brand. Hailing from Gampaha – one of Sri Lanka’s cashew nut processing regions – and being a fan of our local ‘cadju’ myself, it was perhaps natural for me to gravitate towards the industry.
I understood that unlike tea, rubber, and other cash crops, Ceylon cashew was still underdeveloped. I saw this as an opportunity and resolved to make my foray into the industry. My focus was on value addition through packaging and, later, production, in accordance with globally-recognised standards. The name, ‘Royal Cashews’ is a nod to my alma mater, Royal College, of which I’m proud to be a product and even the colours used in the brand reflect this.
What was the turning point for your success story?
In 2004, I attended a trade fair and began exporting to Malaysia. This was a turning point and soon I was on an unstoppable quest to refine our production and processing to the best it could be. I travelled to Tanzania, India, and Vietnam to learn about best practices and bring that knowledge to Sri Lanka.
I am also grateful for the support I received from the Export Development Board, Chairman of Euro Asia Packaging, and others who helped me along the way to where I am today and, of course, to our loyal, global customer base. Since then, driven by our collective love for cashew, we have had the good fortune of being a trailblazer and innovator in the industry.
What makes Ceylon cashew unique in the global market?
Ceylon cashew is highly prized for its size, taste, and texture. The majority of cashews from Sri Lanka fall into the 150-180 grade, making them the largest cashew nuts in the world, according to the international system of cashew grading. They are the only ones used in Royal Premium export products. This sets Ceylon cashew apart from nuts of other origins.
Furthermore, the milky flavour of Ceylon cashew is unique in the world. This makes it highly sought after, as Ceylon cashew makes up only 0.275% of the global annual production of approximately 800,000 tonnes per annum. Today, approximately 20-30% of Royal Cashew products are exported and Royal Cashews is a gold award-winning, largest value-added cashew nut exporter.
What truly sets Royal Cashews apart from others in the sector?
Royal Cashews’ production process is guided by international standards with regard to obtaining the cashew kernels, a painstaking process that takes seven days. The raw cashews with shells are then subject to a fully-automated production process using the latest cutting-edge technology, including nano-technology, colour sorting, and others, with less than 5% of the production process requiring human intervention. This makes it very hygienic and allows for consistently exceptional quality.
The company is also committed to environmental and social sustainability and boasts a workforce where 80-85% of staff are female, with most employees being recruited from surrounding areas. This helps to ensure strong and independent local communities and helps Royal Cashews to directly and positively impact its people by providing many economic opportunities.
We are also eco-friendly and use refuse from the production process to fire our boilers and dryers to minimise our carbon footprint, while also ensuring that zero hazardous gases or effluents are released into the environment.
What are some of the key achievements in your journey thus far?
It’s been an amazing journey and I am so grateful to have been able to pursue this passion of mine. I began my entrepreneurial journey 23 years ago, riding my motorcycle to collect the produce and packing my own products myself. Since then, Royal Cashews has emerged as the most sustainable, community-oriented, and community-driven cashew manufacturer in Sri Lanka and potentially worldwide.
Our focus is on local farmers and smallholders, who have been provided with the technical knowledge and training to ensure the production of the finest quality Ceylon cashew, which is then purchased at fair prices – directly and without middlemen – by Royal Cashews for processing into export-quality products. This ensures that the farmers receive the best value for their efforts.
I’m also pleased to say that our manufacturing facility has been transformed over the years into the most advanced production facility for cashew in Sri Lanka. We were the first cashew company in Sri Lanka to be certified as ISO 22000 in 2012 and have successfully received other quality control certifications, including HACCP and GMP. Today, it’s fully-automated and manned by well-trained staff, food scientists, and cashew experts.
Our efforts have also won us many awards, including the NCE Gold Award for Fresh and Processed Food Exports for three years consecutively from 2019-2021, along with SLIP awards such as Winner of Best Packaging in 2008, Best Eco-Friendly Packaging – Presidential Award in 2011, Best Display Packaging in 2020, and Best Product with Local Raw Material in 2009.
What are your future plans for the brand?
We recently relaunched the Royal Cashews brand because we are looking to be more than a simple food brand. Cashew is more than just a simple food – it’s an experience and something that can help elevate a special moment. That’s why we came up with our signature line: ‘Moments Made Magical’.
We’re also very aware that we’re catering to a new generation of consumers who are looking for experiences in life and making the most of them. Today, consumers are looking for more than good products; they are looking for good products to consume alongside great experiences – and even better if the good product itself is a great experience. That’s precisely what Royal Cashews is.
The relaunch was a natural progression of adapting to our consumers’ needs and preferences and this is something we will make a priority as we continue to expand and grow.