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Back of Beyond Agro: Where sustainable agriculture meets eco-tourism

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Back of Beyond is a name synonymous with sustainable eco-tourism and nature-conservation in Sri Lanka. The company was created over 12 years ago by Yohan Weerasuriya who is a passionate conservationist and agronomist. His vision was to demonstrate that eco-tourism, nature-conservation and sustainable agriculture can work hand in hand. With five eco-retreats around Sri Lanka as well as a nature-conservancy and an organic farm in Sigiriya – he is well on the way to realising his goal.

History:

Having had an interesting childhood with a father, Nihal Fernando, who was one of Sri Lanka’s prominent wildlife photographers, Yohan fell in love with the beauty, charm and simplicity of rural Sri Lanka at a young age. Back of Beyond eco-retreats harkens back to the experiences he loved as a child, and allows guests from the world over, to enjoy these qualities that can be found in Sri Lanka’s countryside and wilderness. A stay at Back of Beyond offers the rare luxuries of peace, solitude and proximity to nature. Back of Beyond properties are always unpretentious and minimalist, surrounded by lush natural landscapes showcasing the beauty of rural Sri Lanka where guests are served with beautiful village smiles and the trademark hospitality that Lankan villagers are known for.

After spending 10 years building up his eco-tourism business and having expanded to five locations around the island, Yohan was able to focus his efforts on one of his dreams a couple of years ago when he launched Back of Beyond Conservancy, which has ambitious plans to protect and conserve the wildlife habitat and forests which surrounds Back of Beyond Wild Haven in Dehigaha Ela. In 2017, having purchased many acres of private forests and abandoned paddy fields, Yohan also purchased some agricultural land adjacent to the eco-retreat in Dehigaha Ela, thus began the Back of Beyond organic farm. It has been a learning experience since then, and the farm which spreads over two acres is now a sight to behold – full of rows of fresh vegetables, a fruit orchard and a section for edible leaves & herbs – all of which are transported to the Back of Beyond properties in Sigiriya, to be turned into all manners of tantalising local dishes for very appreciative guests.

Back of Beyond is loved not only for the amazing natural landscapes within which they operate but also the magical nature-based activities which are part and parcel of the Back of Beyond experience. The team works hard to ensure the experiences are creative and as unique as possible, offering a taste of something that busy urban city-dwellers crave the most – peace, solitude and the sense of calm that can always be found in nature.

Some of the most popular experiences at Back of Beyond are the Magical Sunset Boatride and the Chena Tour and Rustic Breakfast Under the Trees in Sigiriya. During the Magical Boatride, guests are gently paddled away on a pontoon across the quiet waters of a village tank which overlooks the might Sigiriya & Pidurangala rocks. Guided by an experienced naturalist, the experience lasts a couple of hours allowing the guests to take in the picturesque surrounds and breath-taking tranquillity, while watching the many types of water birds and birds of prey, as they go about their daily lives.

The Chena Tour & Rustic Breakfast Under the Trees allows guests to get up close to the operations of a dry-zone Chena farm. A tour of the Back of Beyond organic farm is truly memorable, complete with a tour of the vegetable patches, fruit & herb orchard, a little fresh water stream which is the farm’s water-source and the charming chena hut where the farmer who is a local villager cooks up delicious rustic meals for visitors. At the end of the tour, guests are treated to a traditional local village breakfast of freshly boiled Manioc, Kochchi Sambol (loved by locals for its fieriness!), Pol Roti (coconut roti) with Lunu Miris (chili & onion sambol) & Curries to be washed down with soothing Pol Pala herbal tea, followed by a plate of luscious tropical fruits. All the fresh produce comes directly from the farm itself, which adds to the appeal. If guests wish, they may also purchase any fresh produce that is available for harvesting on the day.

These nature-based experiences take the Back of Beyond experience to the next-level, with guests often recommending it to their family & friends or even on the odd occasion, wanting to join the Back of Beyond team themselves so that they could live the Back of Beyond life every day!

Covid-19

With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, Back of Beyond too was forced to close its doors to the public. While most were fenced in within the boundaries of their walls in urban homes, we realised that many of our neighbours around our properties in Sigiriya who were rural farmers, were going through a much more difficult time than us. Having invested their time, energy and money into their small-scale crops over many months, they were now left with no way of obtaining acceptable prices for their produce, as the wholesale markets were closed down periodically. In the meantime, there were many we knew of in Colombo, who were unable to access fresh vegetables and fruit for their daily consumption!

That’s when we realised that we could in fact come to the assistance of both the farmers as well as residents in Colombo. Within a matter of days, Back of Beyond Agro which was launched the previous year, started raising awareness of the plight of small-scale dry-zone farmers in Sigiriya and together with a team of staff who were ready to jump into this new and exciting venture, commenced marketing fresh produce from Sigiriya to very grateful customers in Colombo and the outer suburbs. Since April 2020, Back of Beyond Agro has been sourcing fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs & spices directly from farmers in Sigiriya and delivering it to customers in Colombo and the outer suburbs whilst following stringent safety protocols as set out by the health authorities.

So far Back of Beyond Agro has delivered thousands of Vegetable Packs, Fruit Packs and Essentials Packs, loved for contents like fresh turmeric, ginger, and tamarind, which are sometimes difficult to find in Colombo. In addition, Back of Beyond has been delivering much loved fresh produce from the rural countryside like juicy mangos, organic bananas, organic edible leaves including Gotukola, Mukunuwenna, Sarana & Kankun and Mint as well as rare delicacies like Yellow Sweet Potato (Kaha Bathala), sought after not just for the delicious taste, but also the high nutritional content.

Since the end of the lockdown, many customers urged Back of Beyond Agro to continue supplying their weekly grocery needs and so a truck-full of fresh produce still comes from Sigiriya each Thursday, bringing with it all that is needed to satisfy the needs of at least 50 – 60 households each week. With each delivery, the loyal fan base of Back of Beyond Agro slowly increased, due to the freshness of the produce (being purchased the day before delivery) and high quality but also because it directly helps the farmers by enabling them to sell their produce at a good price.

The art of life as they say, is a constant readjustment to our surroundings and Charles Darwin once said “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” Back of Beyond is a company which has been able to demonstrate that it is not only necessary to “change with the times” but the process can be a quite fun and fulfilling – full of learning experiences, building new relationships and creating satisfaction, happiness and joy for the people around.

For their adaptability, creativity and innovation in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, Back of Beyond Agro was awarded the second prize, in the ‘Crisis Flexibility Challenge’ led by Good Life X – an International Entrepreneurship Program from Germany.

Future:

Back of Beyond Agro plans to launch its own range of value-added goods in the coming weeks and months including Curd, Kithul Treacle, sun-dried vegetables like tomato, eggplant and bitter-gourd, as well as a range of preserved fresh produce. There are also plans afoot to create an assortment of jams, chutneys and the much loved local ‘achcharu’ with a modern twist.

In a world becoming weary of the ‘rat-race’ culture with its constant competitiveness, with little regard to ethics, community empowerment or the power of relationships, Back of Beyond is a testament that goodness can prevail in the business world of tourism and agriculture, when your motivation springs from the right place.

With a small but loyal pool of regular customers and the power of word of mouth, amplified by social media, Back of Beyond Agro is becoming a trusted name with homemakers who are eager to access fresh, high quality fresh produce.

A website is currently being worked on so that more customers can experience the story of Back of Beyond Agro and in the meantime, you can contact them via their Facebook page @backofbeyondagro or by calling 077 700 2487 for more information.

 

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