Trying to find a topic to write about and regale readers while throwing in a few serious food-for-thought views on the economy, society or the national budget is no mean task with the chaos that is happening around us as a restive coalition government struggles to keep the peace. Thus, occasionally listening to gossip and [...]

Business Times

Building brands and sustainability


Trying to find a topic to write about and regale readers while throwing in a few serious food-for-thought views on the economy, society or the national budget is no mean task with the chaos that is happening around us as a restive coalition government struggles to keep the peace.
Thus, occasionally listening to gossip and stray thoughts from Kussi Amma Sera helps to keep the home fires (read: Generate ideas for a column) burning. So, while sipping a cup of tea, I am drawn to an extremely loud garden conversation between Kussi Amma Sera and her old Aunt Serapina visiting from her village: “Serapina Akka, Lankaveygaskapanawa, loku buildings hadanawa, minissu jeewath-wenna. Apa-raade gasvalata. Aluthin gas wawanna oney”.

Short-of-hearing Serapina could be seen, nodding her head: “Ehemai … Ehemai”.
Overhearing this conversation, I was reminded of a discussion at the Sunday Times Business Club in Colombo last week which focused on some very important issues pertaining to sustainability. The event is reported on this page (below) and what struck me most was the passion of the three who not only spoke from an expertise standpoint but also with a strong belief that Sri Lanka must grow based on a sustainable foundation where man lives alongside animals, nature and the environment, not overcoming or destroying one or the other to survive.

Several key areas of sustainability emerged at the meeting: Sri Lanka needs to move away from being just an exporter of commodities and instead add value to such exports with a proper branding strategy, develop a green agriculture strategy with a focus on food security, a rainwater harvesting strategy and on ‘quality’ tourism instead of ‘quantity’ tourism.

Another idea that emerged is to follow the example of built-up cities with little space for gardens or greenhouses like New York for instance where vegetable and flower gardens are pleasantly grown on rooftops of high rise condominiums.

Lack of space is no more an excuse. Minimalistic space is the new mantra for enhancing your surroundings. For instance, the whole world is going gaga (judging by media attention including the National Geographic channel) over the example shown by the Netherlands, a small country of 17 million people second only to Bangladesh, South Korea or Taiwan in terms of population density. The country has become the world’s second-largest exporter of food and agricultural products after the US, with a judicious mix of determination, innovation, minimal use of water and chemicals through greenhouse farming methods. Its success stems from a national cry, two decades ago, to produce “twice as much food using half as many resources”.

Using advanced technology and innovation in greenhouse farms that stretch for kilometres, many farmers have reduced dependency on water for key crops as much as 90 per cent, according to some reports. Yields are far above the normal world average. For example, some farms produce more than 20 tonnes of potato per acre compared to the global average yield per acre of about nine tonnes.

For comparison purposes, the Netherlands’ land size is 41,543 km as against Sri Lanka’s 65,610 km (21 million population). That country’s national cry to produce more food using minimal resources strikes a chord with Sri Lanka’s ‘grow more food’ campaigns over many decades. But where are we now? Importing rice and other crops due to the inability to manage the vagaries of the weather.

With so many condos springing up in the city without any proper town planning or assessment of demand (will there be a bubble, is what the public is asking though developers argue that there is still a shortage of mid-to-low income apartments while demand for mid-to-upmarket apartments may have saturated), there is a need to create spaces within to make up for the loss of garden space. Developers who create innovative spaces within condos or on rooftops for greenhouse farming (like the New York example), apartments entirely powered by solar panels or large rooftops transformed to collect rainwater are most likely to command premium rates while adding a pleasant environment and green spaces in the city instead of asphalt building blocks.

At the Sunday Times Business Club event what was most revealing, according to management consultant and sustainability expert Ravi Fernando, was that Sri Lanka has one of the most diverse and cash-rich mineral resources in the world but still chooses to export these minerals in raw form.

Citing the example of how Dilmah has taken the world by storm – now selling branded tea in 100 countries and the only known Sri Lanka brand globally, Ravi said it is pathetic that the country is known – apart from Dilmah – as an exporter of commodities, continuing an old legacy while the world has moved to innovative products.

“Nothing has changed over the years. We were a commodities exporter (50 years ago) and still is. Instead of building brands like Dilmah, we sell tea in raw form for others to blend and market as their own,” he said.
Here are some more home truths from Ravi:

  • Sri Lanka has the purest titanium in the world but the export is in cheap, raw form.
  • Sri Lanka has the purest graphite in the world. Again, this export is in raw form rather than adding value.
  • Sri Lanka has the purest Ceylon cinnamon, again going out in raw form.
  • Garments: We have the best garment workers in the world but do we have a world class apparel brand? We should not be content in being a mere tailoring shop.
  • Tourism? Another example of commoditisation. Rather than adding value, reducing the carbon footprint and preserving the environment, it’s all about the numbers game. Instead of attracting high value and fewer numbers, the tourism strategy is built on attracting millions who spend less.
  • Water: Some 70 per cent of rainwater gets washed away due to lack of strategies to store this water at a time when Sri Lanka is facing droughts and floods at the same time. For comparisons, tiny Singapore harvests 70 per cent of its rainwater.

According to Dilmah CEO Dilhan Fernando, the success of the company has been built on a firm belief that “you can do it”. “We had limited resources but we believed in ourselves,” he said. Thirty years after the product was first marketed in Australia, Dilmah Tea is strongly competing with the best tea available on the planet.

Agriculture, food security and innovative farming was the focus of the third speaker, Rathika de Silva, who helps corporates in building sustainable futures.

But is anyone listening? Or will these thoughts and those of many others on the sustainable growth platform be washed away like the floods and droughts that Sri Lanka grapples with every year but fails to be prepared for? For a country blessed with sun, rain and an abundance of natural resources, like Kussi Amma Sera grumbles often, it would be a ‘loku aparadayak (big tragedy)” if Sri Lanka fails to heed the warning signs of haphazard growth without concern for the environment.

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