President Mahinda Rajapaksa's offer of state assistance to find foreign markets for Sri Lankan inventors and creators of innovative products is welcome news indeed.
He made the call at the Presidential Awards for local inventions ceremony in Colombo last week where local inventors were recognized for their achievements in creating products useful to society. The event is organized by the Sri Lanka Inventors' Commission and was for the years 2008-2009-2010, which meant these awards was not presented for the past two years - displaying the utter disregard for recognizing the socially-valuable creations of Sri Lanka. Now that well-known marketer, brand strategist and social activist Deepal Sooriyaratchchi is in the saddle heading what has been seen as a generally lethargic Commission, one hopes the institution would wake up and prepare for a larger than life role in not only recognizing the work of inventors but also mentoring them and helping start-ups. If finance is a problem, the government needs to find a way - maybe rope in the private sector as the return on investment on a good project in a win-win for both.
While the President's interest in helping local inventors must be appreciated, there is a bigger need to create start-ups, provide mentoring facilities and nurture the skills of young, budding, entrepreneurs. Sri Lankans are filled with ideas, creations and innovations. Look at the number of young and not-so-young people who have transformed ideas into products that are useful to the community. Unfortunately 99 % of these products, showcased at exhibitions, entrepreneur fairs and state exhibitions are used to only illustrate the depth of talent Sri Lanka possesses. Rarely is it taken beyond that stage, the process of transforming this product into a human facility serving a specific need.
That stage is either forgotten or completely ignored until some foreign entrepreneur, working in a more favourable environment, comes up with an identical product and produces these in the millions after getting the product patented. Sri Lankans have created history in many innovations just like the 2-wheeled tractor and vehicles run on biogas and hybrids which subsequently made a huge commercial success in the West. This was another case of Sri Lanka 'missing the bus' simply because we didn't make any effort to recognize these achievements and turn them into commercially viable products.
The media is filled with 'feel good' stories of the creations of young innovators but the story ends there. There is no follow-up. Often these creators have developed their innovations just as a classroom exercise or for a school project. They don't have visions of taking it forward to a commercially viable scale most often because the culture in Sri Lanka doesn't encourage entrepreneurship starting from schools where this is neither a subject nor a topic. That's because entrepreneurship is identified as a business and those involved are called 'mudalalis', someone who charges high prices and makes money at the expense of poor people. Not a very palatable definition. There is a distinct difference however between an entrepreneur and a businessman. An entrepreneur is someone who transforms innovations into economic goods while a businessman has a wider meaning - it could apply to a trader who buys and sells or an importer. Rarely is there is any innovation or creation in their process.
Unfortunately since entrepreneurship generally goes with the business or 'mudalali' label, it is not a favoured profession amongst the country's younger generation (guided by parents) whose favourite goals are medicine, accountancy, architecture, engineering, IT, law and other popular vocations.
Universities are now paying more attention to entrepreneurship studies but if a culture of change is not brought at all levels, this depth of talent for public good will go waste. Established entrepreneurs have often struggled on their own to carve out a name for them. They don't have any support from the state unlike established industries like garments, tea, IT or tourism. Take the case of B.K. Maheepala who created the Cashew Shelling Machine.
(CSM) and whose efforts were profiled in the Business Times last week. Mr Maheepala may not have the standing (in society) of the late Ray Wijewardene, the political clout of Harry Jayawardene, the finesse of Susantha Ratnayake, or the flamboyance of Ashok Pathirage. But he makes up for all this with ideas and its transformation, many of which may have been imprinted in his mind as a street-based watch repairman, which has not only helped Sri Lanka but many other countries in the world. In a small Minuwangoda village, this entrepreneur - now helping by his son and two daughters - is churning out hundreds of CSMs to the world.
Sri Lanka should be proud of this son of the soil. But rather than roll the red carpet for entrepreneurs of his calibre, their path to progress is blocked by officialdom, lethargy and a general inclination to help-the-well-to-do. In the interview, Mr Maheepala lamented about his inability to expand his factory and lack of state support. Place the captains of industry in a similar predicament and these errant officials would be looking for a job elsewhere with the authorities pouncing on them! Sri Lanka is more about power and influence than anything else and in this environment rural entrepreneurs, in particular, don't stand a chance.
There have been some good efforts made by individuals and institutions to promote entrepreneurship and its discipline, and in recent times there are competitions to reward the best ideas with a mentoring programme and start-up capital provided for the best ideas. This is all good, but lacks an institutional framework like for example an independent Entrepreneurship Council that can help inventors to transform little ideas into big, commercially viable ones. Often budding entrepreneurs won't be allowed to walk into a bank with an idea, shooed away by the security guard. The other drawback is collateral that the bank requires to give a loan.
Thus while the President's gesture to find foreign markets for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs must be applauded, there is a greater need to nurture entrepreneurs and help them serve the community by developing products that would also reduce our dependence on imports.