If yesterday had been a glimpse into Dilmah’s commitment to Wildlife Conservation today was all about a different kind of commitment, one to the less fortunate. Through their MJF Charitable Foundation, named after Dilmah's founding father, Merrill J. Fernando, they have created a program to kick-start creative people with a desire to take their businesses to the next level, or create new ones. The program is called SEP, or Small Entrepreneur Program. Our driver took us to meet Shantha Devapriya, the project officer and ‘man on the ground’ who was going to show us around over the next couple of days.
As we made our way to our first stop I drilled Shantha with questions regarding the program to better understand what I was going to see. It was a very enlightening ride. The SEP program was open to all and applications were submitted by certain dates after which Shantha would go through them and decide where the efforts should go. In a sense Dilmah was acting like a bank, but one that cared, for they not only provided financial backing, they also provided training and a personal commitment to nurture the applicant on to success. There were follow ups carried out by Shantha on a regular basis and whereas banks ceased their involvement at a financial level, Dilmah carried the momentum forward in a ‘hands on’ supportive manner after finances had been awarded. The driving force behind the foundation revolved around Dilmah's 'Business is a form of human service' philosophy. A philosophy I would witness first hand.
Our first stop of the day was in the town of Badalkumbura and the business premise of one entrepreneur, Upul Indika. The said business premise was Upul’s house and we met him outside his front door. He was a young man that had started a ‘fried banana chips’ business. I immediately took a liking to Upul as his enthusiasm was contagious. Even though we were separated by language Shantha translated while Upul explained his business as we passed from room to room. There was the slicing room, the area out back for deep frying and the packaging and labeling area. It was quite slick.
Dilmah’s initial involvement provided the slicer but they were helping in a much larger way now with financing for a new production facility at the rear of the property. Upul was in the process of building a stand alone building to separate his business from his home. I had to crack a huge smile as he stood by the foundations brimming over with pride. I was amazed. This man was following his dream, and with Dilmah's assistance it looked like it was becoming a reality.
We said our goodbyes to Upul and made our way to the next stop, Sumudu Products, a yoghurt making business. Sumudu Products was created by a man named Sumith, and again I was charmed by energy, vision, and dreams as Sumith showed us around his business as Shantha translated. Sumith's business produced yoghurt, ice cream, freezeys, and 'bites,' a Sri Lankan expression for bite sized snacks. Sumith was further along in his business development then Upul and employed a healthy staff. Dilmah's involvement here helped provide a Tuk Tuk, or three wheeler, for deliveries. When I asked Shantha if Dilmah had paid for the vehicle in its entirety, he said no. A large portion yes, but Sumith was also financially invested in the purchase. I was starting to see a pattern emerging within the SEP programs. Yes, Dilmah offered assistance and were very hands on, but they weren't just giving away handouts. All applicants were required to invest their own monies as well, obviously with a vested interest there was more commitment to long term success. The other thing that was starting to register was pride, pride of place, pride of ownership, and pride of dreams attained.
We wandered through the business which, like Upul's held different stages in different rooms. There was the yoghurt room, the 'bites' room, the freezey room and the delivery vehicles outside. As we stopped by the 'bites' table I watched as one woman scooped bites into a bag, then place it next to other full bags while another woman took them one at a time and sealed them over a candle flame. I was mesmerized, a simple process carried out around a table by women that chatted away happily. Very effective and I counted seven employees in the room.
From banana chips to yoghurt and on to papadams we went. Our next stop took us to 'Janaka Papadam.' Papadams are a delicious accompaniment to any Sri Lankan meal. They're like a crispy light cracker with a slightly salty aftertaste. I loved them. Now Dharmadasa, the owner, represented another aspect of Dilmah's plan to help impoverished communities. Many of those that succeed within the SEP program are encouraged to expand in scope and size which leads to increased opportunities through employment for the surrounding community. These entrepreneurs are called 'Local Heroes,' and Dilmah provides them with additional resources, training, and financial aid to help them expand.
Dilmah had managed to secure the production building for the business and had provided many of the machines required to increase production efficiency. Before their involvement Dharmadasa had done his mixing with a giant sized mortar and pestle arrangement where the pestle was over five feet long and the mortar was a giant wooden slab. Where the previous two businesses we'd looked at had been housed in rooms, this business was centralized in one facility so we could immediately see the whole process upon walking through the door. The only thing that happened outside the building was the drying process which took place outside when it was sunny or in the wood fired 'oven' at the back of the property when it was raining. It is quite an interesting experience connecting a favourite snack with how it is produced and the processes involved in making it 'such' a certain way. Makes you look at food a little differently.
We said our goodbyes to Dharmadasa and his staff and headed out to our next stop, the Subhagya school for differently abled children. We'll have a look at that in the next blog.