A Sri-Lankan Coconut Entrepreneur’s Story of Success
Nimali Gunawardana (25) and her business, Nimali Chips and Fibre Mill, have been hailed as pioneers. Within a year she has created an environmentally-friendly enterprise producing and exporting coir for mattresses and coir piths and, more uniquely, making coconut husk chips which is a new industry for Sri Lanka’s rural district of Hambantota’s Ambalantota.
Nimali, who comes from an impoverished background, was determined to overcome traditional ideas about women in Sri Lanka. However, a failed coir business venture and a lack of collateral meant that banks rejected her loan requests. With the help of YBI member Youth Business Sri Lanka (YBSL), Nimali’s new business has turned a loan of $781 into an enterprise with a projected turnover of over $39,000.
Nimali’s business, which employs people from underprivileged communities, is earning a reputation for its quality products and timely deliveries. She is also doing community outreach: encouraging young people to start businesses; providing support; engaging young people in the coir industry; and donating coir pith to local temples to use as a soil enrichment agent. Due to the jobs and industry she has generated in her village, local government has repaired the roads which has positively impacted the lives of more than 100 families.
Here are Nimali’s views on her entrepreneurship journey…
Q: What was the reaction from your friends and family when you told them that you wanted to set up a business?
A: At the beginning my parents were not in favour because this business could be harmful to my health and because they felt that it was not suitable for a young woman. However, I did not abandon my plan. Later my parents and husband gave their blessing.
Q: What inspired you to start your own business?
A: My intention was to start a profitable business which will provide a large number of job opportunities and which is socially acceptable. This is because I received a free education which is financed by the people of this country. Therefore I had to do something that would benefit the country and her people.
Q: How many previous business ideas did you reject before this one?
A: I was once a garment industry worker. I also did gardening. But I did not think of starting a business in these areas. This has been my first business idea and I was able to establish the business thanks to the training, financial and mentoring support of Youth Business Sri Lanka
Q: What have been your greatest challenges while setting up your business?
A: Before I commenced my business I obtained on lease a coir manufacturing business (it did not produce chips out of coconut husks) and ran it for about three months. I had to face many challenges because I did not have sufficient knowledge of the business. Once, the workshop was set on fire. One of the main challenges I face now in my present business is the fact that no activity is possible during the rainy season. Sunshine is an essential factor for this activity.
Q: What have been your most rewarding moments so far?
A: I employ 12 people from the local community. I also now own two vehicles: a hand-tractor and a lorry. I derive great satisfaction from the fact that I am now the owner of a successful enterprise which I can see is growing.
Q: Where do you see yourself and your business in the near future?
A: I hope to establish a stable enterprise. In 2 or 3 years, I hope to have my own factory to manufacture coir mattresses and twine. I also want to export chips directly to other countries without going through intermediaries.
Q: Do you think that young entrepreneurs in your country have enough support? Please explain.
A: I believe that the cooperation extended by various stakeholders to youth entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka is not adequate. State and non-state organizations should do more for youth entrepreneurs. If these organizations provide the type of assistance provided by Youth Business International to youth entrepreneurs, youth entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka could be raised to a higher level. In addition to providing grants, counselling services, training programmes and competitions, exhibitions, workshops should be organized to empower youth entrepreneurs. However, at the present time the business community plays a major role to improve the economy.
Q: What piece of advice would you pass on to young entrepreneurs?
A: My advice to youth entrepreneurs is not to give up in the face of difficulties and to make a determined effort to continue what they started. They should not hesitate to seek the advice of experienced businessmen. It is my belief that there is nothing called failure and it is only a process that needs to be taken to the very end. There is nothing one cannot achieve in this state of mind.
Nimali is the winner of the Youth Business International (YBI) Start-Up Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2013. She will be traveling to London to receive her award at the YBI Young Entrepreneur Awards event which will be held on 12th September. Visit www.youthbusiness.org to find out more about the 2013 Young Entrepreneur Awards 2013.