Coconut products and pandemic times with Chamila Wickramasinghe
2 years ago
In 2013, Chamila Wickramasinghe and two of her close friends co-founded Ceylon Coconut Company, a business that has since grown into a major exporter of anything coconut. Having grown into a successful entrepreneurship movement, most importantly, Ceylon Coconut Company enables a trickle down effect to the Ceylon coconut farmer, supporting high-quality, ethically sustainable products and motivating Sri Lankan coconut farmers to increase their yield while encouraging more youth to continue in this very important farming practice. With a decade of banking and finance experience and qualifications in business, psychology, nutrition, and aromatherapy, Chamila is evidently a passionate personality, and in our brief time interviewing her, it was clear to us that she has an incredible love for life and a highly motivated affirmative attitude that is wonderfully infectious. While she is absolutely qualified to talk about just about anything, we really wanted to pick her brain for her thoughts on how the pandemic has affected the Lankan entrepreneur and more specifically women, much like herself, whose two worlds of work and home have recently become one. [caption id="attachment_133088" align="alignright" width="287"] "These ideas are mostly borne from women who are looking to do something creative and innovative. And when you look at the products, you can often see the woman’s touch; from strategising to packaging to branding, there’s a little something there" Chamila Wickramasinghe[/caption] Ceylon Coconut Company Sharing with us how Ceylon Coconut Company has fared during this pandemic, Chamila said that in terms of accessibility, particularly when it came to visiting the estates and the factory, the pandemic was problematic. There were transport issues, not being able to find services that would carry products within the island, and added concerns with employees being stopped at certain borders during times of isolation; despite the Sri Lanka Export Development Board (SLEDB) giving certain instructions to go ahead in the case of exporting items, the Police on the ground may not at times be aware of it and so there was a lot of back and forth. In terms of export, Chamila shared that they faced numerous challenges when it came to shipping out the product, particularly considering that there were no ships coming to port. However, while things have certainly eased somewhat and there is a visible pick up in the export segment, she shared that it is important to note that for the most part, because the pandemic is a global crisis, everyone was well aware of the difficulties businesses of all kinds were facing and were therefore extremely understanding of the situation. While things are definitely moving in slow motion, things aren’t as bad as they were at the height of the pandemic. The business model that the founders of Ceylon Coconut Company had adopted from the get-go has allowed them to stay on top of things even when everything was forced to go online, said Chamila. She stated that starting from the office itself, because the business model was largely built around accessibility, particularly for herself, as she was pregnant with baby number three at the time of inception of the business idea and its eventual evolution into a tangible business model, it was easy enough to adapt. Their offices were pretty much in her backyard, and being a hands-on mom, she had always worked from home, with everybody making good use of the many technologies available, mobile access to email, WhatsApp, and Dropbox coming in clutch. Living online and staying motivated Chamila said that the biggest change was that she no longer could find a moment of silence for herself, with the chaos being a constant now that the free time she had to herself previously was being taken up by her three little ones. With schools being closed, she has had to adapt her schedule and work around settling in her three kids with online school early in the morning and then making sure they stay on it. She said that one of the major changes she’s adopted has been that she now wakes up a lot earlier, around 5 a.m., and gets most of her work done a few hours before the noise sets in. She said that kids will be kids and that cannot be helped and so she’s simply had to find a workaround. She added, however, that she’s impressed with how tech-savvy kids these days are, almost as if they are born with that knowledge. Her young ones have all adapted quite well to the logging in process, and her eldest, being 12 years old, has made the transition quite easy. Chamila most needs to keep an eye on her younger ones, making sure that they stay engaged with their classes instead of running off to watch Netflix. “I have my work set up in the kitchen, which is slightly further away from where the kids hang out,” Chamila explained. However, she manages to keep an eye on them while she works. Considering the risks we run these days by exposing ourselves to the outside world, especially with three young children and her father in law who is in his 80s, Chamila shared that she very rarely steps out of the house. Getting nearly all of her shopping done online, calling the markets, and placing online orders, she has managed to stay indoors for the most part. She said, however, that there is a small venture that she initiated in November of 2020 at Horton Place, which she visits sporadically just to see how things are going. Her pilates class with Barressential was another visit that has since moved online and so, for the most part, Chamila shared that a large part of life is spent in a little portion of the house. Being as driven as she is, Chamila also decided to read for a Masters in Nutrition. She is currently in her second semester, and shared that watching everyone studying online and also having to always be around that space felt like a natural transition and she was inspired to learn. Female entrepreneurship Considering her years of experience as a woman entrepreneur in Sri Lanka, we wondered what Chamila thought of the current rise in start-ups and homegrown businesses largely initiated by women, many of whom are braving the entrepreneurial world without having any prior experience. She said that with regards to the numerous small businesses that are popping up online on the daily, she is incredibly impressed and is so very chuffed to see the various ideas catering to different types of needs creating availability of so much variety to meet the needs of the different individuals in society. Particularly on Instagram, Chamila said that she has noticed many up and comers who are in fact women who are doing wonderfully creative things. “These ideas are mostly borne from women who are looking to do something creative and innovative. And when you look at the products, you can often see the woman’s touch; from strategising to packaging to branding, there’s a little something there,” she said. She said that it is no surprise that women are coming out on top during these times because, really, a woman’s entire being is reliant on being able to multitask. “Our lives are all about multitasking,” Chamila said. Whether it’s homework or taking care of children while also maintaining a career, from a young age women are expected to be able to multitask. “I think whereas men would get slightly overwhelmed by certain tasks, women are able to maintain a cool head about it,” she shared, stating that this makes them ideal for entrepreneurship roles and management positions. We also asked Chamila about the accessibility that women have in Sri Lanka with regards to leadership positions and the possibility of breaking that so-called glass ceiling, and she said that in her experience, things are certainly much better now than they were several years back, but one thing she can say is that women should never adopt that mindset where they believe that by virtue of being a woman they may not get the same opportunities as their male counterparts. It may be true in some instances, however, she shared that in her experience, she has noticed that women are often more humble in workplaces whereas men tend to be abrasive in their chase for what they want. “Women tend to adopt the mindset that ‘oh, if I deserve it I will get it’, but men often go after it. They will do their PR (public relations) and campaign and market themselves,” she said. Chamila said that if she had one parting statement, it would be to encourage young girls to not give up, and this applies to anyone who is starting something new, because even with Ceylon Coconut Company, she said that for the first few years they really had no idea what they were doing, and that’s not to say there was a lack of trying; it simply took some time to hit its groove and if she were to give up before things began to go their way, then she would’ve missed out on something amazing. “Things often take time, therefore if it’s something you believe in, then it is important that you don’t give up on it,” she said.