From bananas to corals

Thursday, 5 July 2012 00:31 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga

The ‘Badaada kesel pola’ – Wednesday Banana Fair – is a popular weekly event at Sooriyawewa in the Deep South of Sri Lanka.

Hundreds of banana growers in the surrounding areas find their way to the fair with loads of their produce stacked in two-wheel tractors, three-wheelers and even on motorcycle pillions.

Dealers from all over the country reach Sooriyawewa in the wee hours of the morning in lorries of varying sizes. Business begins at dawn. It’s brisk. The dealers pick their choice in double quick time. The lorries are loaded. And off they go.

This opening para in the chapter titled ‘Partners in Development’ in ‘The Challenge’ – the coffee table book released to commemorate 25 years of Sampath Bank captures the mood of many a place in the country where the bank operates.

As I started chatting to the banana growers, photographer Sarath Perera was busy clicking away capturing the moods at the ‘pola’. By his side was book designer Ruwan Pieris spotting interesting situations for photographs.

At the time we – the production team of the book – visited Sooriyawewa, Sampath Bank had been there for just over a year. Even though there were several banks at the time, Sampath Bank has made an impressive start.

Today, most of the banana growers are Sampath Bankcustomers. Among them is Suranga Kumar – a 26-year old bachelor in Veheragala, a nearby village. He had been with other banks but when Sampath Bank started, he found it to be a more friendly and courteous bank.

Gamini Abeysekera, arguably the most successful rice miller at Sooriyawewa, admits that Sampath Bank helped him expand his business. W.A. Gunasena – commonly known as ‘Gaslabu Gune’ – who has leased out a 10-acre plot in the Ridiyagama Government farm to grow papaw – gets help from Sampath.

Sooriyawewa was just one stop in our quest for news for the book. We were up in the north probing into how Sampath Bank is meeting the challenges over there after the war. As the war was ending, Sampath Bank made plans to open a branch in Jaffna, followed by several in the Peninsula. By December 2011 there were 13 branches in the peninsula.

Under the ‘Uthuru Vasanthaya’ programme initiated by the Government, Sampath Bank is actively promoting microfinance projects. Small growers are greatly benefitted by the facilities offered. They grow a variety of crops like bananas, red onions, gram and vegetables.

Rajini is an enterprising female who, with her husband has started a cement block-making operation. The Kilinochchi branch has helped her with the finances. The couple has yet to complete their house in the same location where the block-making is done. The husband transports the finished product to the nearby town in a small lorry they have leased.

Mallavi is a remote town in the north just beginning to revive after the heavy beating during the north-east conflict. En route to Jaffna we branched off at Mankulam on a dusty road full of potholes. It was tough after we turned left at Mankulam. There was hardly any traffic but the movement was pretty slow.

Though we could hardly see any houses or crops on the way, it was a totally different picture when we reached Mallavi. We found the town to be quite busy. Some of the big names in Colombo had opened branch shops. Goods were aplenty.

Seeing an opportunity, Sampath Bank quickly moved in using a container as the office. The ‘container office’ is fully equipped. Two standby generators ensure that there is no breakdown in the power supply. The office is air-conditioned. The computer network is identical to that in any other branch. It is spacious enough for the staff of six. The SET machine forming a part of the office in a corner is open 24 hours of the day.

Back in the south, we came across a unique CSR project that Sampath Bankhas promoted. When the tsunami destroyed the Polhena reef, a recovery program was immediately launched to rehabilitate the reef through enhancing its live coral cover and cleaning the reef. The first task was to remove the alien debris from the reef site and boost its live coral recovery rate.

The brain behind this exercise was Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara – Head of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology at Ruhuna University. In this joint venture, the bank involved its staff in field exercises, awareness programs and in coral replanting programs along with the students and the staff of the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology. The involvement of the community in the cleaning process itself made them realise the worth of their beach. It was much more than having a sea bath.

Dr. Terney and his team of undergrads are still on the job. In the lab we saw specimens of corals which have been picked for rehabilitation.

At Kamburupitiya we met a highly successful cinnamon exporter who depended entirely on Sampath Bankto organise his business.

In Dambulla, we met a group of farmers who have benefitted under ‘Sampath Bank Saviya’ – a microfinance tool geared at making a difference in the life of the people who were deprived of a comfortable existence.

We met many more and their stories form part of ‘The Challenge’. It was a most satisfying ‘expedition’ for the team who took exactly one year to complete the book. Pix by Sarath Perera