The COVID-19 pandemic has affected livelihoods of many, more so of daily wage earners and micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSME). For Sri Lankan MSMEs, especially women-led enterprises, the pandemic was not the only hurdle they had to overcome.
Jeewani Fernando together with 13 members of the ‘Ranliya Women’s Society of Batewela’ in Ranala have been engaged in producing envelopes which has been the only income source for many years. Even though the Society was fortunate to procure a paper cutting machine with the support of the Divisional Secretariat in 2018, it has been an uphill battle for the women to reap economic benefits due to the lack of training as well as market access following the challenges posed by successive disasters, namely, Easter Sunday attacks and COVID-19.
“We received a paper cutting machine two years ago, but we were quite afraid to operate it as we didn’t know how to use it. So, we just kept making envelopes which was not generating much income to support our families, especially our children and our grandchildren. When lockdowns and restrictions came in, it was even more difficult to survive by just making envelopes” recalls Jeewani.
Meanwhile, John Keells Foundation together with Ceylon Cold Stores (Elephant House) had initiated John Keells Praja Shakthi in Ranala. John Keells Praja Shakthi is a sustainable community empowerment initiative centred around locations of identified businesses of the John Keells Group, led by John Keells Foundation and powered by active and sustained engagement of the respective businesses. Under this project the need for skill and capacity development and market access for the women entrepreneurs of Ranliya Women’s Society was identified as a development need in discussion with the Kaduwela Divisional Secretariat and the Batewela Grama Niladhari, and a training programme on producing paper products was launched.
Following the 2-month training and follow up support, 16 women from the ‘Ranliya Women’s Society of Batewela’ who were once limited to producing envelopes were equipped with knowledge on using the paper cutting machine effectively to produce a variety of paper products including bags, vesak lanterns, lunch boxes, etc.
Even though things were taking a positive turn, the women had encountered another challenge when the country went into another lockdown in May. “We were struggling especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, but when John Keells Foundation intervened and provided us a comprehensive training on how to use this machine, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We were getting many orders and with the seed capital we started making Vesak lanterns ranging from ready-made models to do-it- yourself (DIY) lanterns. We produced more than 2000 lanterns, but the country went into a lockdown and we didn’t know what to do. However, John Keells Foundation supported us once again by promoting sales through their channels and we managed to sell 1,883 lanterns. We have been able to improve our business opportunities within a short period of time with their support” says Jeewani.
In the tourist hotspot of Hikkaduwa, Priyadarshini and a group of 11 other women-led batik artisans were struggling with no immediate tourists and income prospects to market their labour-intensive products ever since the Easter Sunday attacks and exacerbated by the pandemic. Once again, John Keells Praja Shakthi proved a lifeline to these struggling women entrepreneurs. Under the Hikkadwa programme, John Keells Foundation and Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon together with the Hikkaduwa Divisional Secretariat and the Academy of Design (AOD) initiated a programme to upskill and empower these women. 12 batik artisans from Ginthota, Galagoda and Thelwatte underwent a training supported by AOD after which they were guided to create upmarket Batik products under the unified brand of ‘HIKKA BATIKS’.
John Keells Foundation hosted a pilot sale for the first batch of products comprising tote bags, vanity pouches, shoe bags and laundry bags. The sale held on 10th April 2021 at Arcade Independence Square, Colombo attracted many local and foreign buyers. The sales proceeds from the pilot sale together with commissions for more orders are a welcome boost to the batik artisans to continue production.
“It was the first time my son came to Colombo”, says Priyadarshini recalling her day in Colombo for the pilot sale. “Not only was I happy to see all of the buyers who came to purchase our products, I was also happy that I was able to bring my son with me that day.”
John Keells Foundation together with Group businesses Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon and Keells are actively exploring more market opportunities for the batik artisans despite the continuing restrictions arising from the pandemic.
To acknowledge the perseverance and dedication of the women from both locations, John Keells Foundation organized certificate distribution ceremonies for both groups of women to coincide with the International Women’s Day which were graced by the respective Divisional Secretaries and Development Officers as well as representatives of project partners. John Keells Foundation also handed over seed capital to the Ranliya Women’s Society to support them procure raw materials for their planned activities.
Sharing her thoughts about both initiatives, Ms. Carmeline Jayasuriya, Head of Operations, John Keells Foundation, said, “The women entrepreneurs of Hikkaduwa and Ranala bear testimony to the resilience, strength and courage of MSME despite the uncertainties and hurdles that constantly surround their lives. Over the years, John Keells Foundation has been uplifting the lives and livelihood of disadvantaged communities around the country under its vision of ‘Empowering the Nation for Tomorrow’. Gender empowerment has always been an integral and cross-cutting theme of development initiatives undertaken by John Keells Foundation. Through these initiatives we seek to empower women with basic facilities, knowledge, skills and opportunities to be socially and economically independent and become catalysts for the upliftment of themselves and their children.”
Livelihood Development is one of the six focus areas of John Keells Foundation – the CSR entity of John Keells Holdings PLC (JKH), a company listed in the Colombo Stock Exchange operating over
70 companies in 7 diverse industry sectors. With a history of over 150 years, John Keells Group provides employment to over 14,000 persons and has been ranked as Sri Lanka’s ‘Most Respected Entity’ for the last 15 Years by LMD Magazine. Whilst being a full member of the World Economic Forum and a Participant of the UN Global Compact, JKH drives its CSR vision of “Empowering the Nation for Tomorrow” through John Keells Foundation and through the social entrepreneurship initiative, ‘Plasticcycle’, which is a catalyst in significantly reducing plastic pollution in Sri Lanka.