Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan expatriates attend first post-war business conference

( Created date: 03-Jul-2009 )

Now that peace has finally dawned in Sri Lanka, the business community is stepping forward to make its contribution to the economic development of the country and the wellbeing of our people.  Investing in small and medium sized enterprises in the conflict and poverty affected regions is one way of doing so, and it is good business too.

The Business for Peace Alliance launched a groundbreaking initiative in this field in June, with the first major conference to engage the Sri Lankan diaspora.  Over five days, the BizPAct Invest in Sri Lanka Symposium brought together around 30 Sri Lankan expatriates from America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, with some 100 representatives of the Colombo business elite and 40 heads of Chambers of Commerce from around Sri Lanka to look at a range of carefully vetted projects of regional entrepreneurs.

The inaugural session provided the opportunity for the participants to introduce themselves and discuss the new situation in the country.  Many of the expatriates hadn’t been to Colombo for years, citing security worries.  Samantha Rasquinho, a Sri Lankan living in Dubai and heading the Finance division of Emirates Airlines, commented from the panel on how much Sri Lanka had moved forward since her last visit.  She added, ‘I don’t know how I am going to help you, but I am going to, in any way that I can.’  Alex Wijesinghe, a Sri Lankan engineer based in California, congratulated H.E. the President, saying, ‘Thank you for taking the first step towards uniting the country, by getting rid of a group that was holding us back all this time.’  He had brought his entire family, he explained, because now there was no need to fear.

A number of interventions highlighted the potential benefits that working more closely with the Sri Lankan diaspora could bring for regional entrepreneurs.  Jeremy Liyanage from Brisbane explained, ‘They need to understand the business environment if they want to expand to foreign markets, and we can help with that.  The Sri Lankan diaspora has expertise in many industries, and we are keen to get involved in mentoring fledgeling businesses as well as in providing funds for investment.’  He proposed setting up an Office of Diaspora Affairs, possibly under the Ministry of Nation Building, to help organise support from abroad.

This was followed by an interactive session with Hon. Navin Dissanayake, Minister of Investment Promotion, who answered questions on policy issues.

Participants then headed out of Colombo for three days to visit some of the projects identified by the Business for Peace Alliance for support.  Business plans for each had been prepared and audited by experts in advance.

Trincomalee was the most popular destination on offer.  Stopping in Kurunegala on the way, the investors took the opportunity to meet local businessmen at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  They were keen to promote the area as a tourism hotspot, given that that it is ideally located between Colombo and the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The Business for Peace Alliance had selected two projects for inspection in Trincomalee.  The first was a construction project, involving a company with more than a decade of experience in the sector.  With many of the people from Trincomalee who had moved abroad during the conflict now returning home, demand for accommodation is increasing at a tremendous rate.  The company was seeking an investment of Rs. 15 million to build a luxury housing complex, anticipating a profit of Rs. 3.5 million.

The second project required an investment of Rs. 32 million, with an expected return of Rs. 4.8 million per year.  This was to expand and upgrade the rice mill in Kinniya, to serve the large number of paddy farmers in the local area.  An improved facility with proper stores would be able to produce rice of a better quality, which could then be marketed at a higher price, perhaps in Kandy and Colombo as well as in Trincomalee.  The Kinniya rice mill has been in operation for many years, so it is also a solid investment prospect.

Having seen the two projects, the investors also met with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Trincomalee, to discuss other sectors with potential.  Again, tourism was high on the agenda.  Local businessmen pointed to the hot springs, the Koneshwaram Temple and the unpolluted beaches, which they emphasised set Trincomalee apart from the rest of the country.  A representative of the Board of Investment participated in the meeting, drawing attention to the 1,600 acre plot of land that had been put aside by the Government to be utilised for investment purposes.  They were able to visit this area later.

The investors were happy with the trip.  Susan Joachim from Germany commented that it had been an excellent opportunity to get a firsthand understanding of the prevailing business climate in Trincomalee, so that she would be in a position to give accurate information to others.  Emphasising the desire of the Sri Lankan diaspora to contribute to peace building efforts, she said, ‘Expectations are high and the interest is real.  The business of peace has now begun, now that the business of war is over.’  A participant from the United Kingdom, Thana Sivashambu, concurred, expressing her interest in promoting Sri Lankan exports.  The visit to Trincomalee had been particularly beneficial in linking her with the Chambers of Commerce, giving access to so many people engaged in various fields, she added.

The majority of the other projects selected by the Business for Peace Alliance were located in Kegalle and Kandy, in the Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces respectively.

In Kandy, three companies were asking for support.  Two of them were in the spice trade, both with many years of experience.  They were requesting investment to help them to step up their production, providing the infrastructure and additional working capital to bring greater numbers of outgrowers into their systems.

The third project was in the handloom sector, put forward by a company producing silk and cotton products for local sale and export.  They were proposing to use Rs. 20 million to build a new dye plant, increase the number of handlooms and open additional retail outlets.

The Chamber of Commerce was also interested in finding backers for the construction of a Convention and Exhibition Centre in Kandy.

In Kegalle, Rs. 4.8 million was requested to set up a new training centre, focusing on information technology, English language capacities and management skills, in rural areas.  A further Rs. 1 million was targeted for a gold and silver jewellery business, to increase production.

The Southern Province was host to another project, with investment requested to support the further development of an ecotourism venture in Hambantota.  This project was seeking Rs. 1.2 million to strengthen its capacity to market tours internationally.  Meanwhile, Anuradhapura was targeted in the North Central Province, with a project costing Rs. 20 million to support the expansion of a curd making enterprise by setting up and training a network of dairy farmers.  Profits of Rs. 1.3 million were projected.

The closing session of the BizPAct Invest in Sri Lanka Symposium was held back in Colombo, with the participation of various representatives of the Government, including Dr. Palitha Kohona, Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha.

It began with comments from the Sri Lankan expatriates, focusing on their assessment of what they had seen over the five days.  They also made a number of suggestions for the local business community to bear in mind going forward.

Jeremy Liyanage said, ‘The message came through strongly.  Businesses need support.  I am going back to Australia with ideas for how the diaspora can get involved.  We previously struggled to find a role, but it is now pretty clear what that role should be,’ he said.  He proposed to organise focus group mechanisms to test and market products, run workshops on trading with Australia and give what he felt was much needed help with product development.  This was particularly so in the food industry, he stressed, where he saw little difference between products, apart from the labels.

He also called for more English language teaching and greater communication between the diaspora and Chambers of Commerce.  Sri Lanka, he said, was waiting to spread her wings, and to do so it must encourage more foreign investment, a process in which the Chambers of Commerce had a strong role to play.  He urged the Government to provide more support for such institutions.

From Germany, Susan Joachim pointed out that there was a lack of business acumen in Sri Lanka.  Otherwise workable projects failed because of a lack of training or inexperience, she said.  She urged more investment in the Business for Peace Alliance too, to improve communication with Sri Lankan expatriates.

Keith Andrew from the United Kingdom proposed linking up with the Commonwealth Development Fund, which he said provided much of the necessary business training that the participants found so lacking.  He said that the organisation was particularly interested in entrepreneurial development involving young businessmen, particularly those working in micro enterprise.  They would be keen to provide workshops and training for them, he said, and free of charge.

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Palitha Kohona said, ‘Sri Lanka is ready to join the ‘Race to Prosperity’.  My message is to grab the opportunity and go for it!’  He went on to talk about the pro-LTTE bitterness of much of the Sri Lankan diaspora, saying that if only they were to come over and see for themselves, they would invest.  ‘We want LTTE supporters to come and visit Sri Lanka and make up their own minds,’ he said.  He spoke in defence of the Government’s efforts to look after the victims of the conflict, stressing that 95% of the 190,000 IDPs in the Eastern Province were now back in their homes.  The Northern Province would follow soon, he stressed.

Rajiva Wijesinha outlined the developments that he felt had in part been responsible for the rise of the LTTE.  ‘When standardisation led to fewer university places for youngsters in Colombo and Jaffna, the former went into private enterprises.  However, there was nothing of the sort for the latter.  By depriving people of opportunities we spawned destructiveness,’ he said.  He explained that the need today was for investment along with the development of human resources islandwide to ensure that nobody is left behind.

Many of the participants remarked that there was a need to look to the future, putting the conflict behind them.  They are being presented with a chance to help the rural people, all of whom have been affected by the conflict in one way or another,  and they should grasp it.  They also agreed that there would be considerable potential for doing business in the years ahead, and that the country had excellent prospects.

The conference was an overall success, with both congratulation and constructive criticism.  There was a great sense of optimistic opportunity and much excitement at the thought of a new beginning for a united Sri Lanka.

The BizPact Invest in Sri Lanka Symposium was organised by the Business for Peace Alliance.  They received support from a number of other institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Board of Investment, the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the National Chamber of Exporters, the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka, the European Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka and the Peace Secretariat.



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