By Mel Gunasekera
The gentle palmyrah tree that is deeply etched into the hearts of Sri Lankans living in the war-hit north and east has inspired a budding entrepreneur to dream-up a new accessory line – watch straps.
Rohani Christalin Mariyathash, a 22-year-old native from Mannar, began experimenting with palmyrah plants after observing her family members use the plant to fashion out necessities like kitchen utensils and food items.
“I grew up in an agricultural background, where the palmyrah tree was the centre of our lives,” the petite Mariyathash said. “We used the wood, extracted food from leaves and even used the leaves as a fan to cool off on a hot day.”
During the war, palmyrah trees were used to build bunkers. The bullet-ridden palm trees, some with their burn crowns, were later common features as residents returned to the region after the conflict ended in May 2009.
Mariyathash, an agriculture student at the Uva Wellassa University, began experimenting with the tall palm tree, coming up with products ranging from cane, straps of slippers to wedding decorations.
Through curiosity and perseverance, she mooted a commercial project that would bring value addition to a native symbol and an income source for the family that is rebuilding their lives after the war.
Her business plan – R.C. Palmyrah Products – which included a financial forecast, marketing, branding, manufacturing and re-planting programme, won her the inaugural Youth Enterprise Award for creative industries this week.
Jointly sponsored by HSBC and the British Council, the award gives a cash grant of just under $1,000 and six-months mentoring to groups of budding entrepreneurs.
Just under 100 would-be entrepreneurs applied for the award that classified projects into engineering, renewable energy and sustainable industries, agriculture, information communication technology and creative industries.
Open to those between18-30 years, the award was aimed at nurturing entrepreneurial spirit and innovation among undergraduates and students of higher education institutions.
“It’s not just profit-oriented. But we were looking for those who dared to dream the impossible, but also act socially responsible,” said Prajeeth Balasubramanium, a member of the judging panel and Chairman of the venture capital firm Blue Ocean Ventures.
In the final rounds, contestants had to present their business case and argue its financial viability to a five-man judging panel that selected 10 finalists.
“We were keen to encourage job creators rather than job seekers through this rigorous programme,” Tony Reilly, the British Council’s Sri Lankan Country Director said addressing finalists on Wednesday.
Anushka Fernando, a student of the Institute of Personnel Management, found the gruelling judging process very insightful.
Together with two friends from the Moratuwa University, her company – Careers Inc – won the award for Information Communications and Technology.
With the prize money, Careers Inc plans to launch an online recruitment service that also offers a holistic approach ranging from guiding job seekers to offering to conduct preliminary interviews for companies.
‘Greeners,’ a group of budding horticulturists, plan to use their prize money to sell plants decorated with accessories as gift items online. “We are selling a gift that grows, a gift that is eco-friendly and celebrates life,” said Apsara Senanayake of ‘Greeners’.
Four Moratuwa University fashion students emerged runners-up for their plan to encourage Sri Lankan women to wear tailor-made hats.
Their company, Les Chapeaux, is looking to tie-up with a fashion retailer to promote the accessories.
“As a marketing tool, we are also talking to people who contest in reality television shows to wear our hats during the performance,” said Thakshila Weliange of Les Chapeaux.
Four enterprising students from the Uva Wellassa University walked off with the engineering award after mooting a plan to use recycle plastic bottles to make surf boards.
Dishani Ushmika’s ‘Eco paper pen’ won the renewable energy and sustainable prize, for its bio-degradable qualities.
Ushmika, who runs the company with three agriculture batchmates at the Sabaragamuwa University, first developed the product for a faculty exhibition this year.
She was inspired to develop the product after learning her university disposed about 40 used-pens each month. “We have made about a dozen pens, priced at Rs. 250, aimed at executives who care about the environment,” Ushmika, 24, said.
For HSBC, the entrepreneurship award scheme gave it a platform to nurture hidden talent, inculcate financial discipline and develop marketing skills before students leave the academic world.