A determination to succeed
Lack of knowledge, financial assistance and business opportunities are the constraints faced by many young people who have the enthusiasm and dedication to start a business but fail at the first hurdle. Yet with mentoring support and a small grant, a young Sri Lankan woman has, within less than a year, transformed a failed coir business venture into an enterprise producing and exporting coir mattresses, coir pith and coconut husk chips.
Twenty-five year old Nimali Gunawardana, one of seven children from a poor family living in the rural district of Hambantota on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, had to work to pay for her higher education. Starting out as a machine operator in a garment factory, Nimali was determined to open her own business. However, her lack of business knowledge and experience were considerable stumbling blocks in her bid to venture into the coir industry and with no collateral, she was unable to secure bank financing. Her first business consequently failed to generate sufficient profit.
Nimali’s determination to work in the sector remained and she was directed by the local Village Officer (councillor) to Youth Business Sri Lanka (YBSL), a member of Youth Business International (YBI). Seeing the potential of Nimali’s business idea, YBSL provided a five-day training course in financial management and marketing, a mentor with experience as a woman in business, and a US$781 loan to buy the machinery to make coconut husk chips.
A pithy business
On average, a Sri Lankan family uses at least one coconut every day. Nimali’s business buys the husks from local coconut sellers to produce the coconut husk chips and coir pith which are sold to a company – Embilipitiya – in southern Sri Lanka, who then exports them to Canada, Germany and the UK, where they are used as a growing medium (like peat) and to purify water. With the high density of coconut cultivation in the south-eastern region of Sri Lanka, processing of unwanted coconut husks provides a solution to the increasing problem of large numbers of husks which, when soaked with rainwater, provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
In less than a year since it was launched, Nimali’s company is already building a reputation for its high quality products and timely deliveries. Furthermore there is little competition in the market. With the increased viability of the business, and with a recommendation from YBSL, Nimali’s credit rating has significantly improved and she was able to obtain a bank loan to buy a truck for buying the husks and transporting her products. Nimali has a vision to further expand the business to produce mattresses, rugs and coir ropes and to build her business connections to allow her to directly export the products within the next three years.
Seven permanent and six temporary staff are currently employed by Nimali in her business. All are from the surrounding poor community of Ambalantota. For most, the jobs are their only source of income and, with regular work, the families have a chance to send their children to school. With the development of new coir products, Nimali intends to expand her workforce to provide employment for up to 100 extra people. With the impact of Nimali’s business on the local community, the local government has repaired the roads to help with transporting the coir products to buyers, which has also benefited more than 100 families in the area who now have easier and safer access out of the village.
A youthful approach
Nimali is also working with the youth, encouraging them to start their own businesses and engaging young people in the coir industry by partnering with local educational institutions to provide students with materials and training whilst also buying the coir products they make at a fair price. Nimali is also now active in YBSL, providing speeches at events and directing potential mentors and talented youth to the YBSL team. “My mentor’s advice and guidance helped me succeed in my business,” says Nimali. “Whenever I had a financial management or general business problem, she helped me to resolve them and always encouraged me. Her assistance was invaluable because she was my teacher, guide and friend; she helped me make less mistakes and reduced the risks in my business.”
However, Nimali’s success has not come without some sacrifices; she has worked hard and her husband gave up his job to support her to develop the business. But the scale of her achievements in eight months has been recognised by YBI and on September 12th 2013 she was presented with the Start up of the Year Award in London at YBI’s Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2013. “It was a great privilege to meet entrepreneurs and mentors from other commonwealth countries,” says Nimali, “and a great opportunity for my future business.”
Date published: September 2013