Will Sri Lanka's entrepreneurs be able to rescue the country?

Young Sri Lankans march ahead with massive optimism for the futureAFP

The unpredictable intermittent weather cycle - relentless rain and excess heat - cannot stop 34-year-old food entrepreneur Sara Ruben from traveling to the south of the country. She stands at a bus stop in her hometown, Killinochchi, carrying a large case filled with utensils and packages. She runs a mobile catering service. She mostly operates from her hometown in the Jaffna district where she has a small food outlet.

Having started her business last year, it is not often that she gets commissioned to events in Colombo. She is heading for a private sector organised sports event at which she has been provided with a stall to sell fresh juice for the crowd.

“The bus fare from the North to the South is treble the amount than it was last year. But, people are enjoying themselves once again. Sports and cultural events are happening and we can travel about,” says Sarah, who in addition to her catering services also makes traditional hair oils with her grandmother's recipes and sells them at such events. She likes to consider herself as resilient and a contributor to the micro economy of her village and to the macro economy at large.

“Things are not easy but I am earning better now than I did this time last year. This time last year I was just a housewife but I decided that I must contribute to the country’s economic resurgence,” she states.

The capital of the country was just a year ago besieged with people as the island nation marked an unprecedented public protest that sent the then president, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa home. The protests came with national coffers running out and acute fuel shortages, long hours of power cuts and the IMF refusing to assist. The country banned a long list of import items such as luxury shampoos, scissors and paper serviettes. But things are on the mend.

Eight months after Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Rajapaksa opponent, was nominated and voted by parliament as president last July, the much expected IMF Extended Fund Facility of about 3 billion US dollars was received to support Sri Lanka's economic policies and reforms. The new president has promised to lift Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, a notable factor emerging out of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is that foreign products on leading supermarket shelves have been gradually replaced by new local brands

However, some believe that Sri Lanka’s economic crisis could have a silver lining and, despite the political dynamics or intrigues, its civilians will emerge as champions.

“We have to try. I see how the people in my village attempt to come up with different businesses, however small. There is not much support structure for us but we keep on going,” says Sarah.

While the fuel shortage is still subtly evident with consistent rationalisation, where there were once queues, there is a technology assisted quota system which does not make people feel the effect as drastically as before. The shortages no longer affect public transportation.  

Meanwhile, a notable factor emerging out of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is that foreign products on leading supermarket shelves have been gradually replaced by new local brands. Most of them are developed by youth entrepreneurs who are focusing on both the local and export markets.

“The best time to develop is challenging times,” says 28-year-old entrepreneur and exporter Sahan Bakmiwewa. He accelerated his traditional nutrient and plant based business globally within the past three years amidst COVID and socio-political unrest.

 Globalising the ancient wellness heritage of Sri Lanka using the island’s herbs and spices under the product brand Ancient Nutraceuticals, he has now launched the international vegan brand Plant Based. He has recruited international business promoters across the world, while providing employment to rural village families who are part of the agrarian economy.

Sahan’s brand Plant Based is run under his manufacturing chain Silk Cooperation, of Silk Route Ventures (Pvt) Ltd, a company barely 10 years old, begun when Sahan was 19 years old and now operates in 4 continents, has 5 offices in 7 countries and produces over 1000 products. 

“I belong to the younger generation of Sri Lanka who do not think that we have an economic crisis. We just have a mental crisis. If we think of ourselves as poor, then it is so. I see only the riches in this land,” he says after pitching his brand Plant Based to international investors recently.

Sahan, who hails from the South of the country, may differ from Sarah who hails from the North in the scale of their entrepreneurship but they are both encouraged by the same larger socio-economic factors.

Meanwhile 24-year-old Shawn Senarath is trying to make the Lankan seaweed the next tea for the nation.

Inspired by two other friends, he has researched the edible and cosmetic product opportunity in seaweed, Sri Lanka’s ample resource the nation has not yet capitalized upon.

A pioneer in seaweed farming in Sri Lanka Shawn co-founded his company Ceylon Aqua & Agri to maximise the potential of Lankan seaweed directly as a response to the COVID and the economic crisis.

“There are countless young people like me across Sri Lanka who know that Sri Lanka can never be defeated. We want to inspire other young people to start out as we did,” he states explaining that he cultivates seaweed in sea-farms in Jaffna and Mannar and that the Sri Lankan seaweed exceed the required global quality.

For 50-year-old traditional physician Arjuna Pannilage, it seems an abomination to consider that Sri Lanka is bankrupt.

He is an entrepreneur creating wellness products for local and international markets based on the ancient form of traditional medical knowledge of the Sinhalese community of the country called Sinhala Wedakama.

“Everything is entrepreneurship if a nation has the kind of resources that Sri Lanka has. I have inherited this knowledge from my father and during COVID we treated patients successfully, although without the backing of the government. Now I am launching my international wellness brand which includes ranges of traditional wines, teas, tonics and food,” he states.

Whether Sri Lanka’s entrepreneurship resurgence could save the economy and give it a much needed resurrection only time will tell. On Tuesday an IMF delegation completed a twelve day visit to Sri Lanka and issued a statement stating that the macro economic situation in Sri Lanka is showing ‘tentative improvement,’ but that the overall policy environs relating to the economy remain challenging.

* Frances Bulathsinghala is a journalist based in Sri Lanka