Jaffna’s Emerging Women Entrepreneurs

Jekhan Aruliah

By Jekhan Aruliah

Jaruza Jayachandran states with no embarrassment that she didn’t do well at school. When she used to go for parent-teacher meetings at one of Jaffna’s leading schools, Vembadi Girls High School, Jaruza’s mother would ask to be warned which teachers would be complaining. Now that young girl who says she failed to pass her A’levels is the 50% owner of a promising tourism startup, ezBooking.io. A startup that has already built a client base in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and plans to spread its service across South and South East Asia. From sorry schoolgirl Jaruza, now a young woman, is growing into a promising tech entrepreneur treading the path towards great success.Jaruza Jayachandran

Born in Chankanai, a village a few miles North of Jaffna Town, Jaruza has two younger brothers. While her mother looks after the family her father is a small businessman. He entered business by a family tragedy. Her father had been working as a driver in Singapore. But when his brother was killed in the violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War her father returned to take over his bakery business. A business her father continues to run to this day.

After completing school, Jaruza joined a college in Chankanai to get training in software development. She then joined Innovay as an administrative assistant. This proved to be a very fortunate step for her. Innovay was founded in Jaffna by Robinson B Prashanthan. From its offices in Jaffna and Colombo Innovay provides services and software development in the web, mobile apps and social media sectors. Prashanthan recognised the potential in Jaruza, and sent her to Colombo on a 6 month training course at SLIIT focused on Quality Assurance. She returned from this training to spend a further four years at Innovay with responsibility for QA, design, and social media.

In 2017 Jaruza attended the first Startup Weekend in Jaffna. She didn’t actually go as one of the eager young entrepreneurs hoping to break into the big time. She says her unsuccessful schooldays had left her lacking the self-confidence to be so daring. Jaruza went as part of the media team, to take photographs of the event. But while she was taking the snaps, she was also listening and learning and being inspired. And so, watching from the sidelines, Jaruza decided to take an entrepreneurial leap.

For her good fortune, Prashanthan believed in her. Together Jaruza and Prashanthan formed an equal partnership to setup ezBooking.io which provides systems for small and medium hotels and restaurants. The ezBooking systems, developed and maintained by Innovay, provide website; online booking; customer management database; invoice generation and other facilities. Customers can access the system from PC, tablet and from mobile phones. The system can also handle walk-in and telephone bookings, and so provides a virtually complete IT solution for small hotels. The ezBooking organisation does the marketing, customer support, drives the ongoing development of the systems, and owns the customer relationship. In its first year ezBooking has launched systems for nearly a hundred hotels in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Over 1,000 bookings have been made via the system. Examples of the websites built by ezBooking include:

I have to admit, when Jaruza showed me the Delft Samudra website I was amazed that such an attractive looking place existed in Delft. In the three years I have been in Jaffna so far, I have shunned the boat trip to Delft thinking an hour each way was too much to see ponies and a very big tree on a desolate remote island. The website has convinced me I was wrong. So wrong that I was tempted (fyi I didn’t) to hold back publishing this article so I could get a booking before more people discovered the place by reading this, pushing up the crowds and the prices!

For hotels the ezBooking system is a tempting alternative to other tourism sites like booking.com. Not least because these other sites can charge anything up to 25% commission. In contrast, ezBooking makes a one-off setup charge with an annual service fee. At the time of writing this article they were doing a special offer of less than US$400 for the one-off charge, and US$100 per year service charge. The ezBooking system also allows hotel proprietors to monitor their businesses from their mobile phones. Small hotel owners are not always well heeled high rollers, greeting guests and counting profits. Many owners are doing other jobs during the day to make ends meet. They like to be alerted when things happen at their properties.

ezBooking made a splash in Delhi last August where it was regarded as one of the best startups in Sri Lanka at the South Asian Connect Programme run by the University Of Texas At Austin. It also won an award for entrepreneurship from the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka in 2018.

Jaruza won customers for ezBooking by going door-to-door from hotel to hotel to make sales pitches. Sometimes she would take a team away from Jaffna, and spend 3-4 days working through hotels in a region. For example, she went to Arumugam Bay and got a list from the Sri Lanka Tourism Board and from the local Hotel Association. Her team then spent the days visiting hotels one by one. When she has a client meeting in Trinco she will leave her home in Chankanai north of Jaffna at 3am to take the bus to Jaffna Town, and catch another bus that arrives in Trinco at 10.30am. After a 2 hour meeting she will take the 3pm bus back from Trinco to Jaffna getting home at 9pm.

I asked Jaruza what challenges she faces as a female entrepreneur in Sri Lanka and in Jaffna. She said in her experience being female has the advantage that people trust women more than men. A reverse discrimination! She hasn’t felt worried meeting the owners of hotels, as they were educated people who did not behave badly towards women. Jaruza actually had nothing much to say about feeling discriminated against due to her gender. Perhaps this reflects her general attitude to the challenges of life, as things to be overcome rather than worried about!

When she started her entrepreneurial career, her parents worried about her being out late. Family friends and relatives too fussed for the sake of fussing, as fussing is Sri Lanka’s national sport after cricket (my words, not Jaruza’s). Jaruza’s father said she didn’t need to go to work, as he could afford to keep her at home until she got married! Staying at home waiting to get married is clearly not part of Jaruza’s plan. Now her business is taking off, everyone has quietened down. They no longer ask why she isn’t trying to get a Public Sector job. She spends so much time away from home working her parents laughingly say she is like a visitor. She is grateful for her parents’ full support, allowing her to focus her full energies on her business.

As well as her business, Jaruza works hard to promote women entrepreneurs. Last march she started the Women’s Wing of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce, where she is now the Chairperson. This now has 30 members whose businesses span poultry, agriculture, and food. One member is a grandmother in Kokuvil who makes short eats. Jaruza says one can easily find her shop by the big queues outside.

On a visit to India, Jaruza spoke with TechStars, who run Startup Weekends. She talked them into running a Startup Weekend Women’s Edition event for the first time in Sri Lanka, and was appointed the Lead Organiser.

The event happened in the Dialog Auditorium in Colombo in February 2019. 100 women from around Sri Lanka participated, including 20 from Jaffna. The Jaffna women won the first and second prizes (Team Deal N’ Dine, and Team WF2E), with proposals for food and water waste processing for hotels, and for biogas using food waste.

Jaruza has big plans for ezBooking. From the current 98 hotels, she targets to have 2,000 hotels across Sri Lanka in the next 2 years. She has just registered a company in India, and is in talks with partners in Bhutan and Nepal. She plans to setup marketing and franchise partnerships across South and South East Asia. In 2 years time Jaruza targets having a total of 6,000 hotels on the ezBooking systems. At which time ezBooking can become a network to rival booking.com in South and South East Asia.

Jaruza is one of those leading the resurgence of Northern entrepreneurs, both male and female. She is working hard to ensure “entrepreneur fever” takes hold among the women of the North and East and the rest of Sri Lanka too.

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )