Confluence of North & South

20 Jun

ImageA mass-scale exhibition of products / tourism on offer in the North viz. Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar, was held in the Southern Province, Colombo recently.

Organized by the Nucleus Foundation in collaboration with the Good Market Project and USAID, it was held over two days at the Battaramulla Diyatha Uyana and the Colombo Race Course. Its organizers claimed that the event was designed to promote tourism and products / services from the North to the South, as well as forge economic and business partnerships between the provinces. Apparently 230 micro-level entrepreneurs (small / micro businesses) travelled to Colombo from across the Northern Province to showcase their wares.

It proved to be an interesting experience strolling across the stalls, where many artifacts and traditional crafts of the Northern Province were on display. It was also nice to see that quite a few of them had taken the trouble to modernize their designs and products to suit modern tastes and needs.

Thus one got to see prettily designed winnowing fans or hats made out of Palmyrah fronds, and bottle holders and shopping baskets made out of banana twine.

Image

Banana twine Bottle-holder aimed at school-going children

The advantage of banana twine products as opposed to palmyrah products, say their promoters, is that banana twine is hardier and less prone to fungal attack, and therefore more durable – although in the long run, also eco-friendly and bio-degradable.

 

Banana twine hats and basket on display

Banana twine hats and basket on display

There were however also a multitude of palmyrah products to choose from. Not just the traditional wide brimmed hats but also caps – as well as baskets, mats and popular kitchen items like winnowing fans and pittu steaming containers (Neethu petti). A popular palmyrah product trend in the North now are  creative decorative items like colourful flower arrangements and wall hangings, which unfortunately were not displayed at this exhibition.

Palmyrah hats, caps and baskets on display

Palmyrah hats, caps and baskets on display

 

The Palmyrah stall rep’s answer as to what new item they have to offer: a garland made out of palmyrah fronds rather than easily wilted flowers

The Palmyrah stall rep’s answer as to what new item they have to offer: a garland made out of palmyrah fronds rather than easily wilted flowers

 

Also on offer were the various popular Plamyrah snacks – such as  dried palmyrah tubers

Also on offer were the various popular Plamyrah snacks – such as dried palmyrah tubers

There were other innovative items like deep-fried tender jackfruit and bitter gourd pakoras that were selling like hot cakes.

Fried tender jackfruit

Fried tender jackfruit

The much famed ‘Alpha Mixture’ of Jaffna – which sells a variety of snacks apart from the mixture, also had a stall. They are probably the most popular savoury snacks industry operating in the North right now.

The signature Alpha Mixture

The signature Alpha Mixture

Alpha Mixture products

and their bitter gourd pakoras

What is the secret of your success amongst so many similar competitors, I asked the Alpha Mixture sales reps. “Our attention to quality” responds one. “Our unique taste, geared to appeal to our customers” responds the other. Alpha Mixture is known for a unique combination of salt and chilly in its products which do appeal to many a Northern taste-bud. They seemed to resonate well with Southern taste-buds too, if their sales were anything to go by.

Also on display were several hotels showcasing the various services / views and tours of the areas that they covered.

45

“Most Southerners who visit, wish to see landmarks of war on tours,” said a tour operator who did not wish to be named. “There is little of that visible now, though!”

Instead, what’s being touted now are sand, sea and water – as well as water sports!

The difference between a normal land based hotel and                  a seaside hotel can be up to Rs.4000 a day

The difference between a normal land based hotel and a seaside hotel can be up to Rs.4000 a day

And then, there were the various micro-entrepreneurs. The Northern economy still hasn’t grown sufficiently to boast a vibrant private sector. Many people not absorbed into the government work-force therefore are compelled to be self-employed.

All are victims of war and still traumatized but some are more tenuous and strong-willed than others. Sajirani Krishnathas from Mullaitivu is a prime example. Or an exception, depending on how you look at it.

She is what is known of as a ‘female headed household (FHH)’ in postwar Sri Lanka. A widow with a family to support, who lost her husband to the war. FHH are often considered by Aid Agencies to be one of the most difficult, even though most deserving sections of the population to be made financially stable. Their dual duties of care-giver at home and breadwinner who has to work away from home, often clash; in addition to which the culture is heavily stacked against them – doubly as women as well as widows.

Sajirani however was probably the most successful micro-entrepreneur present at the exhibition. She had even won a presidential award for her entrepreneurship skills the last Women’s Day on March 8th.

“I experimented with the produce from my garden to make some vegetable based snacks” says Sajirani. “I actually wanted to make something similar to the Tipitip (popular Sri Lankan crispies) but that needed expensive packaging, so I turned them into papadam instead.”

Sajirani with a sample container of her prized papadam. “I experimented with various vegetables before settling on carrots, beetroots and gotukola as the best fits. The colours of orange, red and green are all natural, not dyes.”

Sajirani with a sample container of her prized papadam

The packaged vegetable pappad

The packaged vegetable papad

“I experimented with various vegetables before settling on carrots, beetroots and gotukola as the best fits. The colours of orange, red and green are all natural, not dyes.”

According to Sajirani, students at the University of Jaffna have tested her products and confirmed them to be more nutritious than normal papadam. Rather surprisingly, the samples she gave out did taste like papadam – in addition to being crispy and crunchy. She also proudly shows off her three wheel driver license. “I learnt to drive the three-wheeler in order to travel and market my products. Several shops in Mullaitivu now carry my papadam. And at this exhibition, a few southern supermarket reps have also left behind their cards, asking me to contact them. They are interested in carrying my products too.”

Other innovations on display included ornaments made from seashells. Tamil households are addicted to ornaments, mostly figurines made out of plaster or china. A group of young women in Mannar however have got together to produce ornaments in the same vein – except these are produced from locally available sea-shells.

One of the reps from Mannar proudly holding up her creation,     made entirely of seashells

One of the reps from Mannar proudly holding up her creation, made entirely of seashells

Also on display at several stalls were handbags, purses and footwear – mainly leather products, produced by groups of self-employed young women, trained by Aid Agencies. The advantage with them is that they also take on custom orders.

Footwear 1

How durable are these footwear? I asked one rep.

Well, she answers, I make mine myself and these have lasted for 6 months now

Well, she answers, I make mine myself and these have lasted for 6 months now

And then there were the soft toy-makers. These were not self-employed. They worked in a factory in Jaffna. Where did they learn the art of soft toy making? “At an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp we were located in during the war,” they recall.

soft toys 2

And how much of a salary do they get?

“Rs 8000 – 10,000.”

Is that enough for a sustainable livelihood?

“No”, they respond. “But what to do? This is better than nothing.”
The toys they make sell from Rs.1000 – Rs.3000 each, and they produce several such toys a month. Do they get overtime payments, off day payments (they are supposed to work full days on Saturdays and even statutory holidays), or annual leave?

“Where in Jaffna,” they laugh, “do you get such benefits?” Well yes. And that is perhaps why, in the Northern Province, more people prefer to be self-employed rather than be employed in whatever private sector there is. But that is a tale for another day.

Soft toys 1

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One Response to “Confluence of North & South”

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  1. Small entrepreneurs’ exhibition in Jaffna | Thulasi Muttulingam - October 20, 2014

    […] reported on in a previous issue, the Nucleus Foundation and USAID have been promoting exchanges between industries, particularity […]

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