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Unlocking the potential of MSMEs vital for post-Covid 19 recovery

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By K.D.D.B.Vimanga

Sole proprietorships account for 63.1% of all businesses in the country,1 and account for 27.1% of national employment.2 Their contribution to the Sri Lankan economy is significant, and subsequent lockdowns due the pandemic have had an adverse impact on these small businesses. At present, we are unable to map out as to how many small businesses would be completely put out of business, but given that the department of labour has estimated (from a survey of 2,764 establishments) that 52.15% or 764 of firms, employing under 1 to 15 employees have closed down,3 it is likely that small businesses have also been hit hard.

However successive Sri Lankan governments have failed to strategize on the potential of these enterprises to Sri Lanka’s economic development. Emerging markets such as Vietnam have been able to capitalise on the potential of these businesses to accelerate economic growth4. Any hope of inclusive economic growth for Sri Lanka’s post covid recovery can only then be achieved if we utilize this sector, unlock their potential and empower them to grow, compete and thrive. While there is a lot of work to be done in terms of policy reform in this area, there are a few low hanging fruits, namely rehauling the business registration process, and bridging the digital divide.

In the form of a multi-part series, the Advocata Institute in partnership with LIRNEasia will provide an in depth analysis of these two vital policy tools to empower Sri Lanka’s small businesses.

Sri Lanka’s business ecosystem

According to the listing operation of Economic Census conducted in 2013/ 2014 the number of SMEs in Sri Lanka most of which are categorized as sole ownerships accounts for 1,019,681 of which 71,126 are small enterprises and 10,405 are medium scale enterprises.5 This number only represents enterprises that have registered under the above criteria. However according to the same survey there are 3 million people who engage in a similar SME related industry, trade or services. 45% of the micro enterprises and 10% of small enterprises remain unregistered. Overall, 42% of business establishments remain unregistered while 25% of these establishments are run by women entrepreneurs. In other words, informality is still high.

According to a survey done by LIRNEasia 40% of SMEs reported using the internet or social media for business; much of this use was limited to information seeking, rather than transactional use. Those who used the internet for business thought that access to the inteenet is either important or very important, while those who did not use the internet remained unconvinced of its benefits: most said there was ‘no need’ to use the internet. Few SMEs were capable of taking any form of card payment at the time of survey, and the majority of SMEs did not use mobile money services. This research points to a serious digital divide restricting the potential of Sri Lanka’s small businesses. This would be tackled comprehensively during next week’s Op-Ed outlining the serious implications of the digital divide.

 

K.D.D.B.Vimanga is Policy and Advocacy Executive at the Advocata Institute. He can be contacted at kdvimanga@advocata.org.



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Rootcode wins Startup of the Year and People’s Choice Award at SAARC Startup Awards 2022

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Rootcode, one of Sri Lanka’s leading tech companies, recently took home the “People’s Choice Award” in addition to being bestowed with the “Startup of the Year” title at the SAARC Startup Awards 2022. This regional recognition marks a significant milestone for the Sri Lankan tech space and workforce. Rootcode’s mission to build great tech is well underway, and it is gaining traction faster than ever.

This is the first time a Sri Lankan tech company has made a name for itself in the regional competition, and it is a watershed moment that has focused the global spotlight on Rootcode’s distinct approach to fostering innovation in Sri Lanka. This is also the first time that a Sri Lankan company was able to take home two awards of those presented at the SAARC Startup Awards.

Global Startup Awards SAARC celebrates the spirit of entrepreneurship and promotes bridging boundaries through innovation in its regions, which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, by recognizing them with its most prestigious awards program, attended by top-notch entrepreneurs, corporates, investors, and ecosystem builders from Nordic, Central Europe, SAARC, and ASEAN regions.

Every year, the SAARC Startup Awards bring together hundreds of South Asian startups, entrepreneurs, investors, co-working spaces, and accelerators to provide a platform to highlight trailblazers in the region’s startup world. Rootcode was chosen ahead of dozens of other regional tech startups in the competition.

Sri Lanka is a relative newcomer to the South Asian startup fraternity, and Rootcode’s ability to represent the country on the global stage not long after its inception is remarkable.

“We are extremely humbled and honored by the support shown to us at the SAARC Startup Awards 2022, and being recognized under two categories is a huge milestone for us,” said the CEO and Founder of Rootcode Labs, Alagan Mahalingam. “We have always been driven forward by excellence, collaboration, and integrity, which I believe is the reason why we have come so far and why Rootcode continues to grow every day.”

Rootcode is driven by its focus on helping businesses build great tech not just locally but globally, and its achievement at the SAARC awards stands as a testament to that. Despite the challenging times, this is a win for Sri Lanka.

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INSEE Cement felicitates Sri Lanka’s youngest Commonwealth medallist

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INSEE Cement awarded aspiring wrestler, Nethmi Ahimsa Fernando, who won a Bronze Medal for Sri Lanka at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, LKR 1 million cash reward, to support her to pursue her passion. Suranga Kumara, her coach, also received LKR 250,000 cash reward, in appreciation of his contribution towards Nethmi’s recent achievements. INSEE Cement has also pledged to support Nethmi’s aspiration to represent Sri Lanka at the 2024 Olympic games, while also providing the entire cement requirement for the completion of her new house, which is presently under construction, in collaboration with the Manusath Derana initiative.

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Has Sri Lanka finally learned its lesson on emotional vs evidence-based agri policies?

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By Dr. Roshan Rajadurai

Inflation looms large over every Sri Lankan as the price of food and other essentials continues to skyrocket. At the center of this historic economic, political, social and humanitarian disaster are a series of deeply flawed and widely criticized policy decisions which have plunged the nation’s agriculture sector into complete disarray.

Among the decisions being singled out for criticism both locally and globally is the now infamous overnight ban on the importation all agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizer, weedicides, pesticides, and fungicides.

At the time, the policy was held out as the first and only preliminary measure needed to drive an immediate, island-wide shift to organic agriculture. Dubious “organic agriculture experts”, as well as medical doctors and monks were found in abundance, loudly proclaiming the virtues of a “100% organic agriculture strategy”.

These once vocal champions of organic agriculture claimed at the time that the ‘declining health of the average Sri Lankan’ and the negative impacts of agro-chemicals on the environment, as well as the annual US$ 48 billion that could be saved by halting fertilizer imports was sufficient justification for the ban.

These same “experts” were quick to dismiss the warnings, counter-arguments, and volumes of scientific data of respected academics and professionals with actual agricultural experience as being nothing more than the dishonest lies of what the former Agriculture Minister imaginatively dubbed a “Fertilizer mafia larger than the Sigiriya Rock”.

Deadly consequences

Back in September of 2021, after many months of frantic discussions with the leadership of the day, I stated the following in a widely published article titled: ‘Sri Lankan tea’s current crisis only reinforces the value of productivity-linked wages’

“Without any prior planning or notice, our entire sector has been coerced into blindly participating in the most unscientific experiment ever attempted in Sri Lanka’s history…The broad consensus among those with expertise is that we can start to see exponentially worse crop losses starting from the end of 2021, hitting approximately 30-40% by next year.

“If RPCs were to have disregarded basic agronomic practices and norms in such a manner, it would have been called criminal mismanagement. With agricultural best practices now being roundly ignored in favour of a undefined and unplanned strategy “100% organic agriculture”, this historic, and intentionally misinformed self-sabotage is being repackaged as visionary and progressive…

“Regardless of short-term political expediency, reality has a way of asserting itself…With insufficient balanced nutrients as a result of the unplanned push for organic, we anticipate a series of cascading failures stemming from a collapse in productivity. No amount of rhetoric will be able to turn back the tide of negative sentiment against such developments.”

Less than a year later, all that we have stated has come to pass. Agricultural productivity in Export crops has dropped by 20%. While export values of tea and rubber have increased, volumes have plummeted by 20% and 30% respectively. Had we been able to maintain production at pre-fertilizer ban levels, we estimate additional export earnings of US$240 M from plantation-related exports.

These shortcomings are reflected in Sri Lanka’s humiliating bankruptcy, and its crippling 54.6% inflation and deadly 81% food inflation. As a result, today the World Food Programme estimates that 3 in 10 Sri Lankans – 6.7 million Sri Lankans – are now facing severe food insecurity. For context, one of the worst famine’s in modern history was the Bengal Famine, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3 million Indians. If we allow any further blunders, these are the dangerous waters in which we are now swimming.

Meanwhile, the overnight 100% organic agriculture experts, the doctors and monks whose sole concern was for the health and well-being of all Sri Lankans are nowhere to be seen or heard from. And it is left to the once vilified professionals and academics to now chart a roadmap out of crisis and restore the industry on which more than 10% of our national population depend on for their sustenance.

A common framework for progress

Solving this complex misadventure is going to be extremely challenging, but we do believe it’s possible. And we believe the plantation industry will have an essential role to play in this difficult and necessary journey.

However in order to do so, we must acknowledge and examine all of the decisions that led us to this terrible low point. Moving forward, we need to appoint a Sectoral Task force – made up of credible industry experts, whom the Government must consult, particularly when formulating policy decisions that have the potential to impact the entire agriculture sector. Failure to do so even at this late juncture will risk even further irreversible damage being done to our industry and the millions of lives that are impacted by it.

This means that the Government in particular needs to commit to a strict regime of evidence-based policy at all times. If drastic policy adjustments are required, the Government has to take a consultative approach, seek out balanced and credible opinions, and obtain broad approval from stakeholders.

With this common agreement in place, we can finally begin to bring together the best minds in our respective industries and work in partnership towards developing a viable roadmap for a sustainable path to a true Sri Lankan economic renaissance. As Sri Lanka’s first true export industry, we believe the Sri Lankan plantation industry should be the first to take up this challenge.

For over a decade, our industry has painstakingly sought to articulate what the plantation sector requires to move forward. At present, the consensus is that reforms, investment, and knowledge sharing are most needed in our industry are in the areas of:

Sustainable, progressive productivity-linked wages that benefit workers and companies

Agricultural and operational best practices

Research and development towards greater local value addition

Factory, and supply chain modernization

Implementation of a consistent, science-based national agriculture policy framework

We call on all those with the knowledge and expertise to join us in this difficult and long over-due enterprise.

Abouts the Author:

Dr. Roshan Rajadurai is the Managing Director of the Plantation Sector of Hayleys PLC (which comprise Kelani Valley Plantations, Talawakelle Tea Estates and Horana Plantations). A former Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, Dr. Rajadurai has 36 years of experience in the plantation sector.

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