Friday, 16 August 2013 00:00
A friend of mine, a foreign national, recently visited Sri Lanka on a tour. I took him to Laksala’s newly opened showroom at the Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue intersection in Colombo to purchase Sri Lankan handicrafts for him. I was amazed and was in a pickle over the fantastic display at the showroom, replenished with fascinating items of different attraction to be competitive with international standards. It was a memorable moment with high sense of pride to absorb the organisational value of the Laksala trade centre, which was remarkably praised by my foreign visitor.
More Laksala sales centres built to international standards have been opened in airports, the museums in the cities of Galle, Kandy and Katubedda, and at expressways in an attempt to attract tourists and local buyers. Showrooms superbly filled with products of skilled workmanship carry the message of quality and competence against future challenges in the market.
The main objective of the establishment of Laksala was to protect and promote of Sri Lanka handicrafts, assure security and provide assistance to develop the industry in order to acquire a profitable market price for manufactures of handicrafts.
From the time of kings
The handicraft industry, an inherited skilled labour sector, has been traditionally continued by generation after generation throughout the ages. During the time of kings’ rule, people were bound to perform their duty by caste on the orders of the king. The villagers were required to work ‘rajakariya’ for the king.
In addition, infrastructure was supplied to them by the king for the manufacture of handicrafts as products made for consuming items of day-to-day use. It was the industrial revolution and fall of feudal system that caused the manufacture of handicrafts to pale into insignificance within the commercial world.
Moreover, negligence of the authorities during the post-independence era to implement a professional project for the promotion and development of production adversely affected the industry. People engaged in handicraft work are mostly from impoverished families running through an arduous life without monitory capital to develop their inane talents and skills.
In early 1960s, initial steps were taken by the Government to develop the industry in establishing an institutional framework in an effort to uplift the lifestyle of those workers involved in manufacture of handicrafts.
The Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board, famously known as Laksala, was founded on 6 November 1964 as a sales division of the Department of Small Industries. On 17 January 1983, Laksala was attached to the National Craft Council enacted by Allied Industries Act No. 35 of 1982 due to the closure of the Department of Small Industries. Laksala (Sri Lanka Handicraft Board) has now become a State corporation empowered with greater responsibility in its endeavour to secure and develop the handicraft sector.
Craftsmanship is an elegant profession attributed to the laborious dedication of a skilled artisan. Raw material from natural resources as clay, wood, gem, fabric and leather etc. are being utilised in the manufacture of a variety of spectacular handicraft products in Sri Lanka.
A lucrative market for handicraft products would be a necessity in a bid to improve the industry. Handicraft items made of natural texture by skilled craftsmen have captured the attraction of the tourists visiting Sri Lanka. It is thought to be the souvenir to remember their visit to this great island. Laksala showrooms are filled with local visitors as well, for purchase of these highly valued products as ornamental decorations for their homes.
Today, the handicraft industry has reached the apex of its development, with priority given to the export of handicrafts, giving value addition to our export products such as gift tea, gift spices, wooden toys, handloom toys, ethnic jewellery etc. It has been suggested that a diversified plan with competent productivity targeting export market and up market segment of local market as well should be initiated.
It was merely a showcase of trade stalls maintained by Laksala during the past few years, with no initiative taken which was necessary to capture the attraction of customers. Promotional development plans should have been implemented with publicity to raise the sale of handicrafts. It was a pity that there was no professional outlook in the organisation since the poor standard of display in early 1980s.
This caused a decrease in the number of visitors to Laksala showrooms, affecting the sales with no profit. Policymakers had to review the issue deeply, whether to close it or continue with the introduction of new planning to rejuvenate the entire structure in their effort of making the sales division profitable.
Today, with the manufacture of innovatively designed handicraft products by skilled artisans, Laksala has become the cynosure of the eye of all foreign visitors from various parts of the globe, in addition to local customers pouring into the showrooms for purchase of these valuable items.
The incumbent Government has focused on the development of the handicraft sector in its endeavour to uplift the lifestyle of poor people with low income who have been traditionally involved in the handicraft industry over generations. President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his Budget speeches highlighted the importance of the handicraft sector and introduced incentives, particularly for SME sector, with the objective of building up the workmanship competence of the artisans.
An immediate progressive change in Laksala appears vitally essential or the establishment of a separate institution for the promotion of handicrafts to win the influence of the public. The quality and durability of the products made with admirable designs would persuade the public for purchase the items of historical value, irrespective of price.
An attractive look to the display of items keeping to international standards is significantly necessary to reach the apex of its glory in trade. Customer satisfaction and a friendly approach with pleasing smile by the staff would be an effective attempt in achieving the objective of making Laksala a lucrative trading institution.
Meaningful change in Laksala is advisable to avert customers turning towards other trading stalls for purchase of handicrafts. Parking facilities and other concessions will embolden them to return to Laksala for their requirements of ornamental needs.
Laksala was able to earn a profit of Rs. 73 million in 2012 and an output of nearly Rs. 700 million is projected according to the press. The Ministry of Finance has also observed the performance of Laksala and it has taken certain measures to meet the customer needs in view of the present scenario.
Today, there are 5,000 artisans and craftsmen who supply their products to Laksala and 10,000 families with low incomes are benefitted at their threshold. It is the virtue of necessity to rebuild the image of Laksala that will benefit the manufacturers by the improvement of profitable sales.
Chairman Anil Koswatte exerted his experience in the private sector to raise the standard of Laksala with spectacular products organised in fascinating manner in his effort to influence the visitors to visit Laksala. It was an arduous task against challenges to modernise new showrooms in Colombo and the suburbs. He is striving hard to identify new locations in popular cities in the island for more showrooms, and for them to be equipped with modern facilities for convenience of the public.
The resounding finesse of the craftsmanship of handicraft is the image of Sri Lanka as a respectable nation. The innate talents of Sri Lankan craftsmanship have brought a good reputation to the nation with its heritage spanning over 2,500 years. It is our duty to secure this industry, replete with the latest innovation in design in the interest of the entire nation.
The Dumbara area in the Central Province is highly popular for the manufacture of mats with incredibly spectacular designs inherited from ancestors. This has traditionally become a family display of skills from generation to generation. As a matter of fact, products with innovative designs are manufactured with amazing handicraft workmanship in many other parts of the island as popular as Dumbara rata mats. In the wake of challenges ahead, it is the responsibility of Laksala to take all procedural measures to secure the legal rights of invaluable handicraft designs with a patent obtained from the Government.
Laksala holds the social responsibility to help improve the lifestyle of the handicraft manufacturers by extending assistance to increase their productivity. It behoves the Laksala management to raise the awareness of manufacturers on the need of quality products securely packaged in order to attract customers. Organising workshops with Laksala in collaboration with experienced craftsmen to develop skills of the innate artisans, encouraging the training of the younger generation will be imperatively advantageous.
In this context, it would be helpful to visit the available handicraft links with diversified export product sectors, for example, tea in gift packs, spices gift packs etc. In the early 1980s, Laksala organised trade fair much like the Milan International Trade Fair with its own participation. The time is ripe now for Laksala to participate international trade fairs that would help Sri Lanka become popularly known to the international community.
Highly commendable new changes were implemented by Laksala during the last few years, resolving present needs and meeting future challenges. The objective of these changes was to keep brand Sri Lanka at the crowning top of its popularity, demanding improvement in the lifestyle of handicraft manufacturers.
Today, through long experience, Laksala has outshone its strength of competence with massive organisational rebuilding by expanding the distribution of sales as well as capturing purchasers at their showrooms that are now fully packed. Laksala is brilliantly playing its role as a partner sharing its contribution in support of the Government in making Sri Lanka the Wonder of Asia.
(The writer is the retired former Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications – Sri Lanka Export Development Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)