Promoting budding entrepreneurs
By Naomi Gunasekara
The ballroom was a hive of activity and eight stalls full of products ranging from freshwater fish to computer software and joss sticks to readymade garments and ornaments created a carnival atmosphere.

The judges visited all eight stalls and spoke to the 10 finalists on a one-to-one basis before deciding on the winner of the Young Business Start-up Award 2002.

The awards ceremony was held at the Galadari Hotel on Saturday, August 10. It was organised by Shell-Sri Lanka to recognise the achievements of young people in business and held for the third consecutive year.

Entrepreneurs who have been in business for a period not less than three months and not exceeding two years, were eligible to enter the contest. Following the Shell's LiveWIRE programme was not a mandatory requirement for participation. Participants, however, had to fall within the 16-32 age group.

"We do not judge them on their profit or loss statements. But on the viability of their business plan, market research, assessment of competitors, risk management, resources, employees, technical and business skills and the potential of the business," said Country Manager and Managing Director, Roberto M. Moran. Judging the contest had been extremely difficult for him as all the competitors were on an equal footing and came from diverse spheres.

The Sunday Times Business Desk met all LiveWIRE finalists at their stalls while they were being judged on a one-to-one basis. The first stall belonged to Softstar Technologies, a computer technology service and software development company situated at Rambukkana. According to Damitha Hettiarachchi and Chanaka Lakmal, managers of Softstar Technologies, the company concentrates on assembling and repairing computers.

"We didn't have money to buy a computer so we begged from owners of broken computers to allow us to restore them."

Having experimented with broken computers they have now launched their own computer brand, Softstar, and plan to promote computers in rural areas though seminars and workshops.

Joss sticks
Unlike Hettiarachchi and Lakmal, she did not attract people with hi-tech equipment. But she was responsible for the fragrance of fresh jasmine that pervaded the ballroom.

Confident, determined and focused, S.U.K. Jayathilaka is from Damunupola in Kegalle. Proprietor of Shawbhagya Industries, Ms. Jayathilaka deals in oil joss sticks, incense powder and balms. Her stall was full of colourful cardboard boxes containing jasmine and rose-scented oil joss sticks. "I ventured into this business after studying the market and business environment carefully. There is a big demand for oil incense-sticks in our area because the climate is wet," she said adjusting her sunset-coloured Kandyan saree.

Black joss stick manufacturing requires drying, unlike oil joss stick making. Studying the climate and deciding what was best for her region, Ms. Jayathilaka started her business with a capital of just one thousand rupees. Acquiring as much as a 30 percent market share by way of direct sales and 10 percent by way of wholesale trading, Ms. Jayathilaka plans to expand her business in keeping with her project report. "I am here today because of LiveWIRE. It opened my eyes to other areas of growth," she said.

Having registered with LiveWIRE Ms. Jayathilaka has improved her packaging and has carried out market research in Kurunegala, Matale and Kandy to identify potential markets. "I didn't carry my name on the packaging before and didn't have any idea how a proper market survey should be conducted. I learnt a lot from LiveWIRE." She has identified kovils and temples that have a demand for her products and plans to operate mobile stalls in these areas.

Penetrating a market dominated by three large-scale manufacturers was somewhat difficult for Ms. Jayathilaka at the beginning.

To compete, she quoted competetive prices and adopted cost-effective manufacturing strategies to reduce the production cost. "I wouldn't have made such progress had it not been for the project report done for LiveWIRE. I never planned ahead and only wanted to live for the moment but LiveWIRE showed me how much I can improve if I had long-term plans."

Within three months of preparing the report Ms. Jayathilaka was able to expand her sales from 575 to 1,500 bundles. She plans to upgrade her factory to middle-level by 2003-04. "There is a myth that the Sinhalese cannot do well in this trade. My competitors are all Muslims and being a Sinhalese woman I face tough challenges. But I am determined to disprove the myth."

Greeny Willows
Piyumantha Senanayake from Mawanella joined his father's business after having sat for his A/Ls in the Commerce stream. His stall, Greeny Willows, was full of greenery except for blossoms of scarlet, orange, mauve and yellow. Bougainvillea, dahlia, daisies and roses took pride of place at the stall and illuminated the greenery with flecks of colour.

Along the left partition of the stall were bunches of lemon, rambuttan and ambarella and at the entrance was a vesak tree full of blooms. "The tree gives rain, rain gives water, water gives food and food gives life," Senanayake had written below his stall name. He has approached the business in a different perspective. "My father concentrated on tea and pepper and planted the same number of plants every year. I introduced other varieties and increased production every year."

His business has become more organised after registering with LiveWIRE. "I even printed visiting cards," he said with a triumphant smile adding that LiveWIRE showed him the right path to follow.

Catering service
P. Karunasena of Pathum Catering Services, had been providing lighting for functions when he realised that he could start a new business. Studying for a BA degree at the Ruhuna University at that time, he collected money and purchased umbrellas, chairs and tables to supply for functions. Today he not only supplies these items for hire but runs a catering service and also makes poru and pirith mandapa.

Freshwater fish
Vasantha Kumara Samarawickrema, who is no graduate like Karunasena, had a stall full of freshwater fish. Model tanks, fish in polythene bags, charts and fishing equipment decorated his stall. The transition from the automobile field to ornamental fish breeding had been a difficult one according to Samarawickrema who works with the Mihintale Community-based Fish Seed Production Unit today.

When the automobile firm he had worked for closed down, Samarawickrema initially planned to start a garage.

He decided to work abroad for a couple of years to acquire the capital to set up a garage. It was during this period that some villagers advised him to venture into freshwater fish breeding. "I had no clue about breeding fish let alone identifying the various varieties but still bred 5,000 fish initially."

Without proper market connections, Samarawickrema had been in the dark before organisations like the Mahaweli Development Authority, CARE, GTZ Project, NECAP Project, North Central Province Rural Development Project, and Services Lanka were introduced as potential buyers under the Shell LiveWIRE programme.

Readymade garments
While Samarawickrema was busy talking about fish, Chamila Niroshani of Thilini Garments was busy sewing. A wholesale and retail supplier of ladies and children's garments, Thilini Garments at Hettimulla focuses on cotton clothes. The LiveWIRE programme helped her to upgrade her venture and even provide her employees with uniforms.

Ornament manufacture
The last stall was Thushini Multi Products owned by ornament manufacturer Jagath Prasanna Tennekoon from Kegalle who learnt about LiveWIRE when he attended a workshop at the Kegalle AGA's office. His stall was full of bright ornaments resembling cartoon characters like Donald Duck, Tweety Bird and Mickey Mouse. Also on the list were Dalmatians, pigs, frogs, princesses and houses made with plaster of Paris.

"Our early products were not as smooth and nice," said Tennekoon who has left his job at the National Youth Services Organisation to become an ornament manufacturer. Tennekoon first realised the market potential of his product when he ran a stall at a fair at Nuwara Eliya and sold Rs. 60,000 worth of ornaments within the first 12 days of the fair.

With Shell stepping forward to play an important role in the process of sustainable development, entrepreneurs like those who competed in this contest have benefited in numerous ways.

"Sustainable development is about balance and integration. Integrating the economic, social and environmental aspects of everything we do and balancing short-term projects with long-term needs.

And at a time when society is exploring how to put sustainable development into practice it is clear that Shell LiveWIRE has started a never-ending journey," said Vasantha Kumarasiri, Promotions Manager, Sabaragamuva Development Bank.

He felt that programmes like LiveWIRE are extremely important because there are very few programmes of this type in rural Sri Lanka. "LiveWIRE is a way of promoting entrepreneurial skills in communities, especially those in which employment opportunities are bleak. Rural entrepreneurs are unaware of business techniques hence Shell has stepped forward with LiveWIRE to create opportunities for the buds to blossom," he said.

And the winners...
The 10 finalists for the Young Business Start-up Awards were chosen from among 50 participants who competed at the regional finals held in Hambantota for the Southern and North-Eastern Provinces, Kegalle for the Sabaragamuva, Uva and Central Provinces and Kalutara for the North-Central, North-Western and Western Provinces.

Rishen Fernando and Harin Nanayakkara of E-Futures Pvt Ltd bagged the first prize of Rs. 200,000 while the first runner-up Nandani Ajantha of Susinidu Dress Point received Rs. 75,000. The second runner-up Hemantha Priyadarshi of Ishara Printers received Rs. 35,000. All other finalists won complimentary prizes worth Rs. 10,000 each from Athvela Viyaparika Sangarava.

The winners for the evening, E-Futures Pvt. Ltd, used simple decor for their stall comprising two posters pulled across a table and three laptops displayed on three black stools. Incorporated in January 2000 to provide tailor-made software solutions for governments of developing countries, E-Futures is a global digital solutions provider that helps leading organisations to generate competitive value by leveraging the power of technology.

Based in Sri Lanka and the United States, E-Future has long-term goals.

Both Fernando and Nanayakkara plan to develop their software solutions for governments of developing countries. "We started off with zero capital except for the Rs. 20,000 used for incorporation," said Fernando who comes from an entrepreneurial background. His mother runs her own business and Fernando had always wanted to start his own venture.

Committed to become the most recognised e-governance consultant and integrator in developing countries, E-Futures seeks to develop a strong network among governments, donor agencies and corporations. Employing 15 permanent employees and seven consultants, the managing duo plans to recruit graduates. "There is a great deal of young business personalities in Colombo who would benefit from a programme like LiveWIRE. I personally feel that a competition like this would result in greater recognition for emerging businesses and thereby encourage young entrepreneurs."

First-runner-up Nandani Ajantha of Susinidu Dress Point had a tree full of eco-friendly cloth bags done for Pinnawela, Horton Plains, the Wildlife Department and the Zoo. Running a sewing operation at a loss towards mid-2000, she only received orders for uniforms and saree jackets. "The market was flooded with factory rejects and my business collapsed." She then started a cloth bag business. "This was a failure because people preferred polythene bags." Undaunted she went on to create an environment bag and received orders from nature friends. Now she plans to manufacture as many bags as possible.

Murals made out of saw dust was what second-runner-up Hemantha Priyadarshi of Ishara Printers used for decor. Priyadarshi who started his business with Rs. 3,000 has equipment worth five to six lakhs of rupees today. "I didn't know anything about printing but learnt screen printing after visiting 13 printers." He prints tutorials for tuition classes, posters, cut outs and banners today and thanked LiveWIRE for the exposure. "Shell looked at us as services providers and that is what is most important. That in itself is an achievement," he said.

What is the Shell LiveWIRE programme?
The Shell LiveWIRE programme, originally launched in Scotland in 1982 and extended to countries like Italy, Australia, South Africa and Oman, is a community investment initiative. Following the success of their initial programme, Shell decided that LiveWIRE should be their main initiative where sustainable development is concerned and focused on areas like sustainable energy, sustainable economy and sustainable community.

Operative in 14 countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, Oman, Mauritius and Singapore, LiveWIRE was established in Sri Lanka in December 1999 as a pilot programme. "We do not provide any financial assistance to young entrepreneurs. But depending on their business plans, regional co-ordinators assist them to obtain loans and help them succeed in business," said Steven Bartholomeusz, Corporate Communications Manager Shell- Sri Lanka.

LiveWIRE is a youth enterprise programme and in most countries the target age group comprises those between 18-25. In Sri Lanka, however, the age limit has been extended. "We see in Sri Lanka that most people who go to university, work for a few years and then decide to start on their own are over 25 and saw a necessity to extend the age limit to 32." Suggestions have been made to extend the programme to include those under 35 but Shell has decided not to extend the age limit. "That would defeat the purpose of the programme. After all this is a youth enterprise programme," Bartholomeusz said.

Participants of the LiveWIRE programme can be those already in business or those thinking of starting a business. According to Bartholomeusz: "The workshop is all about idea-generation. People who haven't thought of starting businesses will be shown various avenues and those already in business will be guided to achieve their goals." Some of the candidates have been to 'Bright Ideas' workshops conducted by Shell and learnt about LiveWIRE at these sessions.

LiveWIRE provides information on business start-up in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Since its inception, it has conducted over 200 'Bright Ideas' workshops throughout the island. They have been administered by the Centre for Private Sector Development and enabled participants to unlock their potential and understand and use mind-power and creative thinking to generate and evaluate business ideas.

When LiveWIRE was launched in 1999, 456 youth registered with the programme, much to the surprise of the organisers who expected about 250 participants only. "This is when we had not tied up with many partner organisations. We had not gone out there and marketed LiveWIRE." Pilot workshops had been held in Colombo but they were not received with much enthusiasm. "In rural areas we spent about 45 minutes answering questions," said Bartholomeusz who feels that the value and demand for this programme is in rural Sri Lanka.

Within the last seven months over 1,100 youth have registered with LiveWIRE and Shell has conducted over 70 'Bright Ideas' workshops in the suburbs.

A number of partner organisations like the Sabaragamuva Development Bank, the Hambantota Chamber of Commerce, the Sabaragamuva Chamber of Commerce, the Sarvodaya Seeds Programme, SANASA and Samurdhi work with Shell to implement the programme throughout the country today.

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