By Jekhan Aruliah
I first met Kamilton Arumugam and Lieke Schroder by mistake. We met at my place in Jaffna about a project a mutual friend thought we had a mutual interest.
We didn’t, but it was a lucky mistake. I met two rare people, Kamilton returning from Switzerland and Lieke coming from Holland, investing their time and skills and money in an ambitious Northern business.
Wartime flight to Switzerland. Peacetime return to Iyakkachchi
Kamilton fled Jaffna during the Sri Lankan civil war at the age of 14. He took the well travelled refugee route on the small boats from Mannar to Rameswaran in Tamil Nadu. During the war, nearly 30 years of conflict ending in 2009, it was difficult for a teenage boy to leave by formal routes. One side saw such boys as threats, the other as recruits. Kamilton’s mother sent her young son with neighbours also heading for the Mannar pier and India. This was a recent era in our country when mothers decided sending their school age boys into the dark sea on a small boat was less risky than keeping them at home. She and her one year old daughter, perceived neither as threat nor recruit, were able to take the formal route in a bus to Colombo and the airport.
The father of the family had already left and settled in Switzerland. With his sponsorship, Kamilton with his mother and sister made their way to Berne, Switzerland’s capital. Kamilton’s education restarted with four years of vocational training, followed by a Bachelor’s degree. There he started several businesses, hair dressing; cleaning; a photography shop, before finding his niche importing foodstuffs into Europe from various countries (not including Sri Lanka).
Kamilton wanted to do something for the Northern economy in Sri Lanka. He ran a successful European business making him financially secure. He could afford to live anywhere in the World enjoying the overstocked supermarkets, the intensely flavoured and intensely priced coffee, the theatres, the smooth roads and fast cars. Kamilton and Lieke frankly admit they enjoy the luxuries of life. That they can stand the more basic standards of Killinochchi, Jaffna and the North only for a few weeks or months at a time. But still they wanted to do something in the North.
What they found in the North when they came, said Kamilton, was a stagnant land of subdued people. Nothing much was happening. One day was no different, no better than the next. Stagnant industries, subsistence farming, scarce aspiration. The people seemed to do no more than just live same day to same day.
Search for land
There was no shortage of unoccupied land in 2018. Unused land was and still is plentiful both in the towns and particularly in the rural areas. Though plentiful, getting legal possession of land is difficult even now. Investing in land without legal possession is pointless. It maybe snatched away by other legitimate or phoney claimants. Sometimes kicked off by goons forcibly, sometimes by kicking off a decade or more of litigation. Many landowners have left the country. Often the land has passed silently into the hands of heirs who know little and care less about it. Perceiving it incorrectly as worthless land in a war scarred economic wasteland. With little intention of returning, some sold their land very cheaply. Many simply forgot about it, leaving their land to decay. Many documents have been lost or destroyed in the kachcheris holding them in “safe keeping”. I myself, searching for my long since passed grandmother’s ancient deed, was told boxes stored close to the ground in the kachcheri had been destroyed by flooding many years ago. Refugees had settled on unoccupied lands through no fault of their own, fleeing their own homes in the conflict. Many fraudulent deeds had been written. Many owners are struggling through Sri Lanka’s infamously slow legal system. Enduring years of court postponement after postponement often due to a person or a document not turning up. 3 to 6 months postponements each time. Delaying people striving to get their lands back to develop or to sell for others to develop. Result: undeveloped land.
In his search for land Kamilton by chance came across his old school teacher from Point Pedro. He had 70 acres in Iyakkachchi close to Elephant Pass. The property’s neighbour with another 70 acres also wanted to sell. The deeds were good, owned by the teacher and neighbour for decades. Kamilton bought them both creating his 140 acre farm in 2019, which he named SK Farms. “S” being his father’s initial Sivagnanamoorthy, and “K” being his own.
Developing the farm
Kamilton made the purchases in 2019, just as the COVID-19 lockdowns started! He was stuck in Switzerland. He sent money and instructions to people who could start work in Iyakkachchi. However, this didn’t go well. Money went missing, instructions weren’t followed, common sense wasn’t applied. 10,000 coconut palms were planted, 4,000 had already died when Kamilton returned in 2021 with the rest in a pretty poor state.
Kamilton returned in August 2021, Lieke joined him two months later in October. Together they worked boots on the ground hands in the soil with a new team in Iyakkachchi. From the start they took professional advice. From the Coconut Cultivation Board and from knowledgeable locals. An invaluable source came via the Netherland’s Embassy, who they had contact with through Lieke herself a Dutch citizen. The embassy provided an agricultural consultant Mr Nishan. Kamilton says they greatly benefited from Nishan’s knowledge, skills and connections. Consulting Nishan, SK Farms diversified from a focus on coconuts to intercropping and livestock. They started farming goats, chicken, tilapia fish, planning to extend to ducks and pigs.
With Swiss precision they grew the right grasses to feed their animals, they mapped their property into sectors showing what was where down to marking individual coconut palms.
In April 2022 Kamilton spotted an old school friend on Facebook, Vaseeharan, who I myself have known for some years. Vasee was a childhood friend of Kamilton until he fled on that boat as a 14 year old. For the next 32 years they lost contact. Vasee runs the beautiful traditional Margosa Green Hotel a few kilometers North of Jaffna Town. He is a knowledgeable and leading light in the Jaffna ecological community, with a myriad of connections both local and with the Diaspora.
Accepting support from people like Nishan and Vasee, Kamilton and Lieke made rapid progress. SK Farms employed at peak 74 people working to clear and develop the property. For 14 months until December 2022 Lieke and Kamilton stayed onsite leading the creation of the farm.
Now with much of the work done, they employ 34 staff. It will take another two years before the farm starts generating significant income.
It takes 5 years from planting for the coconut palms to become productive. Goat sheds are ready and operating, the tilapia lake is stocked, planning for producing pigs and ducks is in progress. The routine of running the farm is getting into place. Leaving Kamilton and Lieke time to look for other opportunities.
Other businesses: Prawns; Fingerlings; Rice and Tractors
From the start Kamilton had been funding this from his businesses in Europe. Developing 140 acres is expensive. Apart from buildings and infrastructure, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent importing tractors, bowsers, JCBs and other machinery. Kamilton tried locally available farm vehicles. But frequent breakdowns of these vehicles meant projects that should take 2 months took 6 months. His staff enjoy driving the imported tractors, the Swiss ones are airconditioned. They build up their skills and their self respect and their loyalty to the business becoming skilled machine operators, more than merely farm labourers.
Kamilton employs an experienced engineer from Anuradhapura to keep the vehicles in excellent condition. SK Farms makes good money renting these imported vehicles locally, enough to cover the running costs of the whole farm. People are willing to pay the higher rental cost, confident the machines won’t breakdown leaving them with long delays, paying workers to do nothing, losing time and money waiting for them to be repaired.
Already they have bought another 30 acres close to the beachfront, which they are stocking with 2,000 coconut palms and intercropping. No livestock is kept here, because the area is not secure from theft of moving or movable items.
50 acres have been bought with direct sea access, where they plan to put 40 x 1,000 cubic meter tanks to grow prawns. Sea water comes in through the access channels, and going through a cleaning process the water returns to the sea. Kamilton’s target is 500 tonnes of the popular and healthy Vannamei Prawns per year.
In the North you don’t have to go far to find projects that started but didn’t get to become operational. Newly equipped rice mills lying idle, a coconut oil factory with unused donated machinery are just examples. A tilapia fish hatchery, where construction was started with a foreign government grant in 2014 and abandoned in 2017, is in their sights. SK Farms won the tender to bring these tanks back into production. This would provide fingerlings to be sold to the local community, building an inland fisheries industry. Offering jobs as well as food security for the locals. And the opportunity for the locals to profit from selling this popular fish. Refurbishing 5 of the 25 hatchery tanks with his own money, Kamilton is looking for an investor to fund the refurbishment of the rest.
Kamilton would like to meet potential investors for these and other projects he has in hand, including one to make compostable packaging from agricultural waste. He and Lieke can’t spread themselves too thin. To maintain standards they recognise the necessity to create and to recruit high calibre people with the right attitude and skills.
It takes more than heroes to rebuild an economy
Employing high calibre managers and diligent staff is essential for the rebuilding of the Northern economy. Companies built by heroic entrepreneurs alone are not sustainable. The Kamiltons and Liekes and Suganthans and others like them, whether IT or Agriculture or Manufacturing or whatever, must encourage and build excellent managers and staff. Excellent managers and staff who continue to run and grow businesses while the entrepreneurs seek new opportunities or they retire to the golf course and beyond. Successful economies maybe created by heroes, but they grow and thrive and succeed because of the plentiful supply of good quality dedicated staff.
You can contact Kamilton and Lieke at email@example.com
( — 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 firstname.lastname@example.org — )