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Made in Sri Lanka and being proud about it!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 31 May 2012 00:26


Every day we wake up to news from the economic front – and that is the war we declared after the conclusion of the 30-year conflict and with some zeal – and sometimes the figures and news are not quite enthralling, maybe to some extent we should take up the same battle positions here too.

We speak of the growing trade deficit and the urgent need to do something about it. A segment of the population – around 1.5 million – is away toiling for most of the time and sending more than six plus billion dollars per annum and that had kept the economy perhaps at some level of stability as well.

We must understand these external placements have kept these numbers away from being job seekers from the internal economy. It may be healthy and humane to have an exit scenario from this not-much-to-be-proud-of economic activity from a societal and a human perspective.

The trade deficit for the first two months is said to be around 1.7 billion dollars and as I type this line and the value, the Hummer that I saw on the road in the morning flashes across my mind.

I know imports of this nature as well as all the other imports takes money away and wonder how significant demands are made of foreign exchange and the load on trade deficit that some of this type of expenditure and demand entails.

Yet in a democracy, only understanding can direct change and we should respect that. When writing of course we try to express and state our view on issues and hope for that broader discussion and for an impact if one manages to drive some sense.

Local manufacturing

It was few days back that you heard the Treasury Secretary stating that we spend on many things we can manufacture here and he is most certainly right. If we start a manufacturing activity in a strategic manner, we most certainly can change this situation.

However, we must acknowledge that we have worked for a long time to kill our manufacturing system, extolling the virtues of a service-based economy. It is not quite easy to switch on manufacturing like with services. With time, understanding and abilities also disappear and Darwin can perhaps explain why! Then it is quite difficult to resurrect.

The basic truth is what the Treasury Secretary stated and now what we should consider is how to move on to realise that. We should get engaged in manufacturing and that should be in a way that we can be proud about.

Just another addition to the line of thinking is, it is not what we can manufacture that we should not bring in but what we really do not need in the context of our environment. Then there is the societal understanding of sustainable consumption that our society at this critical juncture appears not to have understood this concept and the relationship that our uncontrolled consumptive habits have on the overall economy.

‘Made in Sri Lanka’

How many of us may have heard stories or actually gone through the experience of buying a shirt or receiving a shirt from abroad and getting disappointed when we see the label Made in Sri Lanka? Now that is a segment that we can be proud of on the skill and the abilities we have displayed, yet we know that we have had this experience.

It may not be quite common knowledge, but when some famous Olympic athletes line up for their events even in London this year, our innovative contributions would be their official apparel! This is not only for this year’s Olympics but has happened in many events of the past.

Again, consider the launch of Greatship Roopa at Colombo Dockyard in March this year and that was said to be their 222nd ship which would be sailing on oceans of the world with the ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ label. How many of us are aware of that when we only understand and are aware that even tuk-tuks are only assembled here – even the word tuk-tuk is borrowed from Thailand to give the vehicle an identity. Hence we can and we can be proud of some of these production achievements.

It is time to get this into our generic DNA as well as to the subconscious mind so that we just do not look at the label and display grimaces. There are lots of positive developments from our manufacturing sector that we should be talking about.

However, there is the urgency in doing this as more and more people have joined the pool of people who believe in anything overseas. This is certainly not stating to do everything from within, which of course is foolhardy, but to have a vibrant manufacturing sector as well as a group of individuals with experience and a tacit knowledge base for the country to respond in an emergency. Our disaster support abilities currently may not be much beyond cooking hot meals, but sincerely hope that this is not so.


‘Just in time’ operators

It is important that we understand the quality and consistency required. 21st century consumers are more advanced in terms of their individual demands and also get bombarded with short messages to their multiple senses many times a day. Thus there is the need to understand the basics for such a transformation.

When we understand at times how we react and actually engage in operations, we just see that most of the times we are ‘just in time’ operators and ‘fire-fighting’ has become second nature. A frantic number of calls and exchanges and running about are evident and we know that all submissions may come at the last minute, etc.

This knowledge is changing our profile so much as to believe that there is still time and then it is almost too late when we start doing what is required. However it was left to the Japanese to perfect the concept as a way of production and an excellent method for operational excellence.

It was a different just in time that the Japanese perfected, though our abilities to handle lot of activities in a short time must mean something and we should bring out a methodology to describe it.

Again, consider the economic growth and the record number of holidays that we have. Hence, if we really divide whatever the output by the actual working time taking out two half-hours from the start as well as at the end, this may show that we are the best in productivity on earth. It should be a management attribute that you describe whatever happens in an organisational behaviour lexicon and then position the skill in a more positive light and indeed we may be proud of achieving much more with much less!

Innovation is key

While we state the dire need to manufacture, we must equally have a plan to move on with the concept with actual means. New and innovative ideas too are called for and a greater integration of higher education with industry is called for as well.

The service base need for language skills and eternally heard soft skills is not what primarily is required and that may be a painful re-education to some who had been preaching on these ‘soft’ aspects for so long.

It is no secret that this approach to have generalists doing management have brought down competitiveness of some of our existing manufacturing units almost to the point of no return. How many times we now observe engineers becoming even human resource managers – now I certainly would not recommend total absence of cross pollination as even biological systems are strengthened through this. It is the whole scale disappearance of solid engineering in Sri Lanka that I lament.

Then when garbage piles up in Colombo, we desperately seek solutions from all over the place and the scenario indeed is quite sad. Across the Palk Strait there is much less inhibition on language unless you are seeking call centre employment and then of course you do a complete U-turn which as per Arundathi Roy, a daytime Vinod turns into a night-time James!

Way forward

Realising ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ is not easy and the fact that this is not an easy process is well-known. Hard work and perseverance is the key plus innovative support from policy makers and planners.

Getting people to drink more tea or plan to sell some for a higher value may appeal to a few, though some are desperately looking at tea to help us with few extra billions at this stage. With old plants with some as old as 100 years and when you have ignored them for so long, the poor plants may not have much life left in them to provide a healthy brew to entice generation Y to wait while some one pours hot water over them and it is time we realise that we must have a wider set of options. We have consistently let ourselves down by being optimists with less work and much play.

Strengthening an economy is not a sportainment. However, selecting few industries which can deliver a meaningful difference to the import expenditure and then creatively building a manufacturing eco-system is a way forward.

Even at this late hour, this line of thinking should be considered rather than stating what is logical but engaging in the illogical after the speech. We hear many such speeches before and after tea and it is time for action.

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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