By Jekhan Aruliah
Colombo has a thriving entrepreneur scene. No shortage of mentors, angels and coffee shops in Colombo. But what about the neglected North? In this province, still lagging a decade after the end of the war, there are stars to be found. Here are the stories of two young entrepreneurs in the North. More can be found by those who take the trouble to look, but here are just two examples. One, Stalini, has been building her enterprise for some years. The other, Sinthush started his business five months ago in the gap between school and starting college. He has just started, she has already shown her staying power. With support, mental physical and financial, it is people like these who can reignite the stagnant Northern economy.
I first met Stalini five years ago, when I went to observe a children’s group learning English. Stalini was the teacher. Her bright bubbling enthusiasm impressively captivated the class of 5 year olds. I didn’t know for five years, until I did this interview, that she was brought up in a poor family of five children eating just one meal a day. From those humble beginnings, Stalini has become a startlingly innovative and promising entrepreneur. Her agricultural business now produces livestock (goats, and ducks), natural animal feeds (Azolla, Duckweed, and CO3 Napier Grass), and organic plant food (including earthworm castings), natural liquid fertilizers and insect repellants (made of fermented cows urine and a mixture of leaf extracts). Stalini gives much credit for her entrepreneurial journey to her mentors, two doctors who graduated from Jaffna University. Dr Prabu and Dr Shribavan themselves gave up their clinical careers to become social entrepreneurs. Stalini told me before she met the doctors she was like a frog in a pond, with highly restricted horizons. The two doctors’ motivational talks and guidance got her out of that pond, to see the possibilities in the wider world.
After completing school Stalini took an HND in Business Management which she completed in 2014. On completing the HND she was offered an internship at a bank. Something most children and their parents would leap at. But Stalini explained to her parents that she wanted to be an entrepreneur.
The response from a Jaffna Tamil parent to their child turning down a bank job to be an entrepreneur would normally be entirely predictably horrified. But this predictable response was not what she got from her parents. Stalini is grateful to her mother and father who gave her 2 years to try out her crazy ideas, so long as she promised to knuckle down to a “proper job” if things weren’t going well.
After graduating Stalini joined Suvadi, a social enterprise founded in 2010 by the two doctors. Her first job was as part-time teacher at the weekend pre-school that I had visited. Stalini went on a one month teacher training course in Malaysia where she got the chance to eat duck. Stalini so enjoyed the duck, she decided to start farming them in Jaffna.
Learning from YouTube, Stalini launched with 5 ducks, who reproduced to become now a flock of 300. Ducks are a hardy bird, more so than chickens. Ducks can find their own food, unlike chicken who need purchased chickenfeed. Ducks don’t need the quantity of medications and antibiotics chickens do. Stalini told me this absence of medical chemicals in the duck makes their meat and eggs a healthier option. Stalini is evidently an intensely intelligent and focused young woman. You can see signs of this within 10 minutes of talking with her, and you know for sure after seeing her progress over a few years. In 2016 Stalini started growing Azola, in 2017 she started CO3 Grass and Duckweed. These are all highly nutritious animal feed, for ducks, goats and cows. Stalini said she has a “zero budget farm”, as her livestock are fed from her home grown ferns and grass. In a 2 square meter pond enough Azolla can be grown for ten goats she says.
In 2018 Stalini started an earthworm farm to collect their castings, which are an effective organic fertilizer. From various leaf extracts and garlic juice she makes a pest-control spray, and she bottles fermented cow urine which is applied to encourage plant growth by biodynamic farmers.
Together with the Doctors and their friend and colleague Mr Moorthy at his farm in Adampan near Mannar, they are producing organic rice using Azolla growing in the paddy fields to fix nitrogen. Because the azolla covers the surface of the water, it also discourages weeds. She has started piloting an Ultra High Density (UHD) Moringa variety, and also the Saanen Goat which produces a high yield of milk (she now has 11 Saanen Goats on her farm).
In 2019 Stalini started training other farmers in the practices she had piloted. She was visited by the Northern Province Dept of Agriculture, who appreciated her methods and encouraged her to spread them. Advertising on social media she offers free training to 30-40 farmers at a time. University and school students also attend. She trains them on various matters such as how to grow their own Azolla to feed their goats, illustrating the increase milk production. These sessions are held in most months.
I asked Stalini what her plans are for the future. She said with a suitable investor she would buy farmland. Though the government offers leased land, Stalini was worried about the conditions and interference so she would rather buy land. She would greatly increase the volume of products in her range and continue to investigate new ones. If the volumes grew sufficiently she would look for channels to export her products and her methods.
You can contact Stalini at: Stali91@gmail.com
Vijayasuriya Sinthujan (Sinthush)
I met Sinthush, by chance one evening because I was too lazy to cook. Remembering an advert I saw on Facebook promising an improbably delicious barbecued half chicken delivered to the door for Rs800, I decided to take the risk and placed an order (I was not disappointed by its deliciousness). The whole deal was sealed over WhatsApp, enabling me to provide a GoogleMaps location of my place thus avoiding the usual chaos of me, who doesn’t speak Tamil, guiding the delivery guy, who doesn’t speak English, to my place over the phone. I received a prompt WhatsApp confirmation of my order, and again 10 minutes before the promised delivery time of 7pm I received another WhatsApp confirming the food was on its way. The whole process was well thought out. Just a couple of minutes late, the guy on his motorbike arrived. I came to the road offering a decent tip which he politely declined in English. As he spoke English I asked him about the business he was working for.
Sinthush, the delivery guy, is actually the owner and one third of the workforce of Yaarl Eats. He has a chef, a former carpenter and electrician from Point Pedro who had worked as an under-chef in Colombo. And a school friend who does deliveries. An old boy of St John’s College Jaffna, Sinthush is waiting to start a degree course, much to the pleasure of his parents. While his parents look forward to his graduation, what Sinthush himself really wants to do is run his own business. Something his parents are not so enthusiastic about. To fill the waiting time before college Sinthush launched Yaarl Eats in May 2020. Sinthush started by himself with just four thousand rupees. Within one month he recruited the chef, and a school friend to help with deliveries. In the five months between launching Yaarl Eats and this interview, he has made over one thousand deliveries in the Jaffna Peninsula.
I asked Sinthush why he chose food as his business. He said because it isn’t easy, in fact it is hard. There is a high price to pay for mistakes: hygiene, health, quality, customer satisfaction. With social media, compliments and criticisms fly around quickly. Delivering on time is critical as a hungry customer is an irritable customer who may reject the food and say so on social media. He chose the food business because good food and good service at a good price is a barrier few people can climb.
I asked him what his advice is for young people:
- Hard work is everything. With hard work you can do anything.
- When you are young and have energy don’t look for easy jobs.
- Business, like life, goes up and down. You must live through the ups and the downs.
- We can’t get to the top in one day, we have to take a journey.
- Lose friends who are going the wrong way, to drink and trouble.
- Find friends who can help you become better.
Sinthush’s top piece of advice is to find a good mentor. Sinthush’s mentor is Rossy Harinth, a graduate of the prestigious Moratuwa University. Rossy works as an irrigation engineer at the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management, and also runs the Jaffna Karate School (JKS) as well as setting up his own businesses. It is from Rossy at the JKS that he gets inspiration and learns discipline and focus.
Sinthush’s parents see his friends going to work at banks and finance companies in Jaffna smartly dressed in dark trousers, shirt and tie. They look forward to him starting at College next year to earn the degree that will put him into his own shirt and tie. Sinthush says he will put the business in the hands of his brother and a couple of friends, and will continue to support them from Colombo. Until he gets back.
You can contact Sinthush at Sinthuk943@gmail.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 — )