Charitha Abeyratne Hettiarachchi wins ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2015’ for pioneering concept of sustainable tourism and empowering local communities in rural areas
Saraii listed as ‘One of the Top 10 Most Extraordinary Tree Top Hotels in the World’ by Trip Advisor; being awarded as a ‘World Luxury Hotel’ this month
To expand aggressively in next five years; looking for investors to partner expansion plan
Charitha Abeyratne Hettiarachchi – Pic by Sameera Wijesinghe
By Marianne David
When Charitha Abeyratne Hettiarachchi dreams, she dreams big. And then she makes her dreams come true, while empowering others and uplifting their lives in the process.
The Founder and Chief Executive of Saraii Village and the winner of the ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2015’ award presented by the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry in August this year, Charitha was recognised for her work in empowering local communities in rural areas through her socially-sustainable business venture.
The venture, Saraii Village, showcases off-the-beaten-path experiences to smart global travellers and has been growing from strength to strength since its inception three years ago. The business has its roots in Charitha’s MBA project, which then came to life due to her perseverance and determination to follow her dream no matter what.
How it all began
A Fulbright Scholar and a Presidential Scholar at Colorado State University, USA with an MBA in Global Social Sustainable Enterprise who runs her own successful and socially-sustainable business today, at the outset Charitha had no clue about which path she wanted to follow.
From the Business Studies stream at Good Shepherd Convent, she went into IT – software engineering and computer science – at a time when she hadn’t even touched a computer. Having realised halfway through that she would not enjoy it, she then shifted to Business IT studies and graduated with a First Class in Business Information Technology for her BSc.
From there she joined Virtusa, which was her first job, after which she joined Roomsnet International, where she did some travel and online trading of rooms, making it the only tourism experience she had until she started Saraii Village. From Roomsnet she moved to MAS Holdings, where she met her husband Prasanna. Soon after that, Prasanna started a company called Saaraketha Organics, which focused on retail and export of local organic produce and as they travelled around the country to meet farmers in rural areas, her path slowly became clear to her.
“When we spoke to farmers, they would say how they didn’t want to always be in farming. I got to thinking about what else we could do to support them in their own environment and improve their financial capability and I thought of engaging in agro eco-tourism,” said Charitha, in an interview with Daily FT.
A dreamer with her feet firmly on the ground, she realised she needed to understand how to operate a sustainable business to begin with, so she secured a Fulbright Scholarship – becoming one of the four people in the country who got it that year.
She then hunted down the ‘Global Social Sustainable Enterprise’ program at Colorado State University, for which only 25 people in the world are selected, and became the only Sri Lankan to be accepted. There, she received a strong foundation on which to build her dream, from how to set up a sustainable business, to marketing and finance.
For the summer practical, she came to Sri Lanka with three of her colleagues and travelled around the country in an attempt to find a good location. The last stop was Arugam Bay and on the way back they stopped at Wirawila where Prasanna had a three-acre plot of land on which he had grown over 1,600 trees.
“We had a little hut there and we stopped for lunch and then decided that since we had this land, rather than putting in a large investment, it would be better to see if this pilot would work in Wirawila,” recalled Charitha, who is one of the few women in tourism at a time most startups are IT-related.
Charitha Abeyratne Hettiarachchi with her ‘Young Entrepreneur’ award
Saraii Village comes to life
With an initial investment of Rs. 5 million, she started Saraii Village in a small way with just four units and a hangout area in a rustic setting. The lodging emulated the tree houses farmers use to watch for animals and mud houses in which they live.
Today, it has grown by leaps and bounds and is backed by 12 high proﬁle investors locally and internationally, after Charitha pitched for funding through a Venture Engine business plan competition in 2013 and was funded for expansion.
Saraii Village now comprises 12 units, a restaurant for 60 pax, a pool, pool bar, spa and retail outlet. The host of excursions carried out there is a key aspect of Saraii’s appeal (see box).
It has also received international recognition and acclaim. Saraii was listed as ‘One of the Top 10 Most Extraordinary Tree Top Hotels in the World’ by Trip Advisor in both 2013 and 2014, received a ‘Certiﬁcate of Excellence’ in 2015 and is being awarded as a ‘World Luxury Hotel’ this month.
Living the dream
A mother of a two-year-old boy, Charitha today thoroughly enjoys what she’s doing. For would-be entrepreneurs, she has these words of advice: “You may not know all the answers at the start and people might not take you seriously, but if you believe, you need to keep at it. A lot of people halt when they face rejection and hurdles; those who succeed are the ones who jump the hurdles and go ahead.”
Having a good support system is also important, noted Charitha. “This would have happened without my husband, but not as fast. You need to be around people who lift you up. My parents have always been very supportive and never pressurised me to go down a certain path. They would say I could do anything as long as I was happy.”
To be creative, Charitha believes people need to have that space. “If somebody tells you this is the line you need to take, then you will probably be stifled and your potential won’t come out.”
Perseverance is just as important, she added. “My colleagues who came with me, all of them quit the project and I was left on my own. I could have fallen apart because I had a big project to finalise or I could have gone on with it and that’s what I did. Unless I had the perseverance to go ahead, this wouldn’t have worked.”
Plans for expansion
It’s this combination of perseverance, belief and thirst for entrepreneurship that’s pushing her to think bigger. Although Charitha admits she’s living her dream right now, she emphasises it’s not the full dream. “Entrepreneurship was my true calling, to set something up and run it on my own, but Saraii as it is right now is not the full dream but only one initial location.”
Charitha’s plans now encompass replicating the Saraii Village model in different locations and expanding its portfolio of authentic experiences. The next location will probably be Ella and the company is presently looking for funding for this expansion. “We’re thinking of having at least 10 locations in the country in the next five years. We have a very aggressive growth plan.”
Her vision is for Saraii Village to be a leader in the global sustainable travel trade in the next five years. Given that Saraii Village is all about a return to basics and a lesson on how to enjoy simple pleasures, healthy food and sustain a lifestyle that retains a message of giving back to the community, the planet and ourselves, her vision is sure to become a reality.
Saraii Village: Showcasing authentic Sri Lanka
Saraii Village promotes sustainability while encouraging guests to become one with nature and enjoy the simple luxuries of life while experiencing authentic Sri Lanka.
“Saraii is for those who understand sustainability and eco-tourism; it’s all about experiencing something different and understanding authentic Sri Lanka,” explained Founder and Chief Executive of Saraii Village Charitha Abeyratne Hettiarachchi.
Here are some of the experiences revolving around food, culture and wildlife that one can look forward to at Saraii Village:
Cook your Catch: Set out on the scenic Weerawila Tank for an early morning fishing trip on a tradition canoe with local fisherman. Catch your own breakfast and bring it ashore and let the fishermen cook you a fresh breakfast picnic you can enjoy on the bund of the tank. You can also indulge in some rod fishing or photograph breath-taking surroundings.
Farmer’s Lunch: Experi-ence the spicy local fare of traditional rice with freshly ground coconut sambol, fish curry made from the catch of the day, lentils, young jak fruit curry, and the freshest greens – an opportunity to taste the best of country cooking, with a sumptuous famer’s banquet lunch prepared before your eyes.
Making Curd – Visit a village home where the experts teach you the secrets of making perfect buffalo curd. End your lesson with a tasting of this popular and delicious dessert.
Chena Lunch: Chena cultivation is a special form of agriculture in Sri Lanka. Learn about this intriguing method of farming as you indulge in a special lunch in the chena fields and experience life in authentic chena huts.
Local Market Visit: Check out how the villagers retail their produce. If you are adventurous, purchase some of the ingredients and put your cooking lessons to the test back at Saraii Village. Or, the resident chef will be more than delighted to whip up a delicious meal for you. Your purchase contributes towards the welfare of the villagers and the agricultural industry in the region.
Cooking Demo: Join the resident chef as he demonstrates how to make some of Sri Lanka’s favourite dishes at Saraii Village.
Breakfast By The Lake – Sit down by the waters, dip your toes in the lake and enjoy the greatest meal of the day.
Pottery: Learn the intricate art of Sri Lankan pottery from expert artisans and make your own clay pot on a traditional wheel.
Palmyrah Weaving: Learn the ancient art of weaving palmyrah leaves when you visit the local artisans and let them teach you the entire process. You can also weave your very own work of art.
Night at Chena: Get transferred to a nearby Chena village and immerse yourself in the local lifestyle. Learn about this unique agricultural practice before taking a refreshing dip in a nearby stream. Enjoy a local meal made of fresh produce prepared by farmers and settle in for the night under the stars. You will be picked you up early in the morning and brought back to Saraii Village for a scrumptious breakfast.
Dry Zone Botanical Gardens: Sri Lanka’s first-ever botanical garden in the dry zone, soon to be the largest in the island, is aimed at conserving the massive green patch and biodiversity in the area and features most of the country’s indigenous foliage.
Saltern Visit: An educational tour and a completely new experience. See how the most common household item is produced in an eco-friendly way.
Cycling Tours: Take the guided two-hour cycling tour of a traditional village and explore the simple ways of life and quench your thirst with some delicious king coconut water.
Bundala Bird Trail: Bundala National Park is an important hotspot for both migratory and endemic birds, and is home to over 197 species of birds. Flamingos flock here in large numbers. Although a number of mammals such as elephants, grey langurs, wild boar and even leopards can be seen, the biggest highlight is the crocodile. A tour that lasts 2.5 hours, the Bundala Safari is a treat for wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers.
Night Safari: Check out nocturnal animals and birds in their natural habitats as you venture along the Buffer Zone of Yala National Park. The five-hour guided tour by jeep allows you to see owls, nightjars, the Rusty Spotted Cat, etc.
Aviary Afternoon: A bird enthusiast’s dream come true, where the best of nature’s colourful inhabitants can be found in the form of black swans, ostriches, green peacocks, emus and others. Spanning over 50 acres, the Hambantota Bird Research Centre houses over 200 endemic and exotic bird species and collaborates with conservation projects around the world.
Lunugamwehera Safari: Lunugamwehera is a famed natural corridor for elephants migrating from Yala to Udawalale, as well as an entrance into Yala’s blocks II, IV and V. A visit promises unique and memorable encounters with the world’s largest land mammal and a myriad of other exotic fauna.
Nature Trail: Take a relaxing stroll through the idyllic countryside and visit delightful rural homes to make new friends.
Leopard Safari: Sri Lanka’s famed wildlife rules resplendent at the Yala Safari park, home to the world’s highest density of the elusive leopard, the ambling sloth bear, the regal Asian elephant, sambar, spotted deer and a host of other exotic fauna.
Udawalawe Safari: One of the world’s best elephant-watching experiences, Udawalawe’s lush grasslands and jungles protect over 500 elephants and is a veritable haven of mammals, reptiles and birds of all varieties.
Rod Fishing: Learn to fish the good old way with tools provided by Saraii, at the scenic lake amongst the great company of the charismatic team. Bring back your fish and allow Saraii chefs to cook up an exciting meal.