Financial Times

Emerging out of poverty

Very often, a helping hand, little guidance and moral support can work wonders in lifting impoverished communities in Sri Lanka out of poverty. Across the poorest regions in the country like Moneragala and Hambantota, many villagers these days are struggling to eke out a living particularly at a time when a severe drought has left much of the regions dry, parched and the daily chore of finding water.

The people in these regions may be poor but they don’t lack resources, hard work and a determination to lift their families from poverty. During a visit to Lunugamvehera in Hambantota district on Tuesday, the Sunday Times FT found that most politicians –be they from the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) or the main opposition United National Party (UNP) – have missed quite a few points in their election campaigns. One of which is the need to empower the people rather than give handouts.

Quite a few farmers growing rice, cereal, vegetables or fruits are unable to grow some of their crops owing to the drought. “We are hoping for the rains this month. If that doesn’t happen we are sunk,” said a farmer at one of the villages. While the daily struggle to lift themselves out of poverty continues, there are many ways in which these communities can survive and move forward – with support from concerned private sector companies and state guidance.

Though they are unable to grow some crops, the land mass in Hambantota is a veritable goldmine of fruits, vegetables and fuel wood that can be turned into a productive business – if only some private sector company steps in and helps these communities.

This would eliminate the middle-man who squeezes a decent profit out of the poor farmer who are at the mercy of these ‘vultures’. For example, in the village of Agbo pura, a farmer takes his produce of cereals like mung ata or kurrakan on a bicycle or tractor to the main highway, several kilometres away, and gives it over to the middle-man at the latter’s shop, and returns home. This businessman waits for the ‘buying’ lorries to come after which a price is negotiated, a large bulk of the profit taken by the middle-man, and the goods transported to Colombo at an inflated price.

The poor farmer is given a price at the whims and fancies of the middle-man. On the positive side, gardens of these farming communities are filled with fuel wood, fruits and herbal plants like Ranawara (now used as a popular tea-styled drink), pol pala, glyricidia (in which government support is given as a fuel wood source), komarika, murunga, rata cadju, thala, woodapple, beli, banana, passion, and so on.

It’s a treasure-trove of products that one can spin a lot of money from. Unfortunately, the farmer is at the mercy of the middle-man and disposes of this produce for a song – when millions of rupees can be made from nicely packaged products.

Come sun or rain, such produce on the land grows freely and without restriction. Glyricidia is commonly grown as fences around village properties but these villages don’t know the value of this fuel wood and thus trade it at any price or even dispose of it free at times. “Why should we import kurrakan when it is abundantly available locally?” asked a social worker from a Lunugamvehera village.

Another freely available resource in the village is cow dung which can be turned into very productive fertilizer or compost. What these rural communities need is guidance on the formation of an effective society or farmers group; some tips on management, marketing, and independently finding buyers,
There is a need for small processing centres at the village that can package these products and sell it directly to the markets and supermarket chains like Cargills, Keells or Arpico.

The district chambers of commerce can help to build partnerships between farmer organisations and the private sector – the key being to empower these communities so that they get a reasonable price for their products. While a lot of this is already happening in terms of support given by the chambers and supermarket chains, there is a lot more that can be done going by what the Sunday Times FT found in some of these villages.

Linking the markets with the farmers; minimising the need for the middle-man; creation of proper storage facilities where seasonal products can be stored and sold throughout the year, are some of the issues that rural communities need to be helped with the private sector taking a lead role in the economy and with the tremendous growth opportunities after the war, a helping hand to these communities is a social obligation that would improve their quality of life and make them more productive citizens.

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