Hambantota’s Nimali flies Lankan flag high at global UK biz awards

Wednesday, 25 September 2013 00:16 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Nimali Chips and Fibre Mill founder Nimali wins YBI Start Up Entrepreneur of the Year 2013
Nimali Gunawardana from Ambalantota in the Hambantota District was recently crowned as the UK’s Youth Business International (YBI) Start-Up Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 at an awards ceremony in London. The award is endorsed by UK’s Prince of Wales and prior to receiving her award; she and other award winners had an audience with Prince Charles. Nimali Gunawardana and her business, Nimali Chips and Fibre Mill, have been hailed as pioneers. Within a year she has created an environmentally friendly enterprise producing and exporting coir for mattresses and coir piths and, more uniquely, making coconut husk chips which is a new industry for Sri Lanka’s rural district of Hambantota’s Ambalantota. Nimali, who comes from an impoverished background, was determined to overcome traditional ideas about women in Sri Lanka. However, a failed coir business venture and a lack of collateral meant that banks rejected her loan requests. With the help of YBI member Youth Business Sri Lanka (YBSL), Nimali’s new business employs 13 people and is looking to generate a turnover of more than US$ 39,200. And she is just 25 years old. Breaking traditional barriers and a businesswoman with a future Nimali is one of seven children from an underprivileged family, and she worked to pay for her higher education. Thereafter, to make ends meet, she became a machine operator in a garment factory. However, Nimali was determined to be independent and took steps to open her own business. Her first venture in the coir industry failed to generate sufficient profit. Nimali’s lack of business knowledge and experience were considerable stumbling blocks. “Once that business failed I was determined to engage in the same sector and to develop my skills,” says Nimali. But she failed to secure funding from banks as she did not have collateral. “I was lucky to be directed to Youth Business Sri Lanka (YBSL),” she says. YBSL saw potential in Nimali’s business idea and supplied training, a mentor and a US$ 781 loan, which Nimali used to buy much-needed machinery. While she had the raw materials and machinery, YBSL also found a permanent buyer for her goods. Later on, on YBSL’s recommendation, Nimali received a commercial bank loan enabling her to buy a truck for her business – a step which has significantly improved her credit rating. Nimali’s business produces coconut husk chips and coir pith using husks that have become a threat to the local environment due to the high density of coconut cultivation. Husks, when soaked in water, cause air pollution and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. “Our business works hand in hand with nature,” says Nimali. The chips are mainly sold to Tropicare, which exports them. Meanwhile, the coir piths are sold to a company in Embilipitiya in Southern Sri Lanka, which exports them to Germany, Canada and the UK where they are used in agriculture and to purify water. The coir for mattresses is supplied to a Galle-based company which exports them to countries situated at high altitude. The business is earning a reputation for its high quality products and timely deliveries. Furthermore, there is little competition in the market. Mattresses, rugs and coir ropes are on the business development agenda, which will see the creation of 75 to 100 extra jobs. Nimali is also building her business connections so that she will be directly exporting her products within 3 years. Nimali’s 13 employees (7 permanent and 6 temporary) are all from the local underprivileged communities and for most, these jobs are their only sources of income. For some, this work has also been a lifeline out of crime and given them a chance to send their children to school. Nimali has been praised for the work she has done with the community’s youth. She is encouraging them to start their own businesses; she calls on contacts for youth support; and she is engaging young people in the coir industry by partnering with educational institutions to provide students with materials and training while also buying products they have made at a fair price. In addition, she donates coir pith to local temples to use as a soil enrichment agent. She has an increasingly prominent role in her village and, due to the jobs and industry she has generated, local government has repaired the roads which has positively impacted the lives of more than 100 families in the area. Nimali is also active in the YBSL team: she gives inspirational speeches at events, and directs potential mentors and talented youth to the YBSL team. “I am happy that I have broken down the traditional barriers a woman has to face in society,” says Nimali. “I am very grateful to YBSL for guiding and supporting me, and for helping me learn from my past mistakes.” YBSL has praised Nimali’s determination and courage. “A woman running this type of business in Sri Lanka is pioneering,” said the YBI member. “She is a businesswoman with a future. “The amount she has achieved within an 8-month period, and her dedication and sacrifice is inspirational. She has overcome many traditional and gender barriers, and she has grasped this business opportunity with both hands and run with it.”