Thuru – making Sri Lanka green again

“The pandemic has resulted in a lot more people planting trees,” said Thuru Co-founder Heminda Jayaweera, commenting that it has been most encouraging to see people put their newfound free time to good use.

Thuru is an award-winning start-up that helps preserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and combat the growing loss of vegetation around the island. The initiative links the world of digital with conventional tree-planting to accelerate reforestation in the island.

The initiative is a testament to the evolution of Sri Lanka’s start-up ecosystem over the last decade. Today, anyone seeking to launch a start-up has a vast array of resources – co-working spaces offer affordable workspaces, accelerator programmes help founders formulate strategies for growth, and there are numerous investors ready to fund promising start-ups.

In their journey to making their start-up dreams a reality, Co-founders of Thuru – Jayaweera and Hasanka Padukka – together with their key team members – Tharindu Kodikara, Sangeeth Harshendra, Suranga Senarath, Sajith Gajanayake, and Upamali Jayasinghe – in 2020 applied and were accepted into “Spiralation”, a support programme for tech start-ups by the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) which aims to promote, encourage, and support technology start-ups and innovation within Sri Lanka. The highlight of the programme is its Rs. 1.5 million grant.

Jayaweera shared that when they first started Thuru back in 2017, it was initiated in the form of a mobile app. Coming from tech backgrounds, he said the team wanted to make it trendy to care about the environment and to make planting trees a goal-oriented, rewarding experience. 

The Thuru mobile app describes itself as “a Facebook for trees”. It is a service where, once you plant trees and upload its images and details, it will automatically give the uploader points and geo-tag the location. The user can climb up ranks on the leaderboard to the position of a “true nature hero”. This provides great incentive for enthusiasts, Jayaweera shared, stating that the longer you take care of the tree and the more images you upload, the more points you stand to get. It is a guide for trees with the information it offers, and it also helps link up like-minded nature lovers from around the world, as the app has since gone global. It is now available in Bhutan, the Philippines, and Nepal.

In search of other international partners, the Thuru app is to be pushed to reach a larger international audience in the coming future.

Meanwhile, their efforts have been recognised by the GSMA Global Mobile Awards 2020, popularly known as the GLOMO Awards, and the app was shortlisted for the “Best Mobile Innovation for Climate Action” award. The event was held in Barcelona last year and Jayaweera shared that it was an honour to be mentioned, as they were a small start-up amongst tech juggernauts such as Huawei and other veterans in the industry.

Thuru started off as a passion project with the altruistic intentions of a group of impassioned hikers who saw with their own eyes the detrimental things happening to our environment. Jayaweera shared that the inciting incident that led to them launching Thuru was when he noticed the glaring changes in Bambarakanda Falls between the time he visited in 1998 and 2014. He said: “The vast differences were truly an eye-opener, and it really makes one realise that the effects of deforestation and climate change are clearly visible to the naked eye; it is no longer a question of whether it’s happening but rather a question of how fast we can scramble to save our planet.”

What Thuru has done is productise the tree-planting industry, providing licensed expertise when it comes to planting trees around the island. The services they provide include the delivery of potted saplings, regular monitoring, and taking care of the plant well after it has been planted, and they house fully fledged nurseries where plants are grown under optimum conditions before being sent out to their customers. Currently operating with three nurseries of their own and connected to eight others, they are growing their network whilst providing income opportunities for rural farmland owners and also incentives for them to carry out ethical agricultural practices.

The “Thuru Ecosystem” also has a network of volunteers that grows trees on their own initiative. Jayaweera commented that when they first started, there was a need to showcase the work that they were doing and in order to do that, they called upon volunteers to take part in nearly weekly tree-planting events. He shared that they have around 50-60 volunteers who participate in these events. However, they have had to put a stop to these gatherings due to the pandemic.

He also addressed their goal of planting two million trees, whilst sharing an important statistic that in Sri Lanka, back in 1990, our forest coverage was 37% – well above the global average of 31%. However, with time, this figure dropped to a concerning 28% by early 2016. Therefore, even to this day, Sri Lanka remains a country that has forest cover below the global average.

To put this into perspective, Jayaweera shared that in order to reach the global average, we would have to plant roughly 20 million trees, which, originally, they thought would be a project they could accomplish by allocating one tree per person; considering Sri Lanka’s population, if one person plants one tree, the goal could be achieved. However, following a survey they conducted in 2016, he said that it was revealed that when asked if they have planted a tree in the last two years, only 10% of the people answered in the affirmative. Therefore, they settled for 10% of their original statistic, which meant two million trees. They have since reached the 50,000 mark, and are well on their way.

Heminda Jayaweera & Hasanka Padukka, Co-founders of Thuru

Adopting technology in their strategy, Thuru has also launched an innovation called “Seedpod” in partnership with Vaibhav Solutions and the SLINTEC Startup Engine. The product is engineered to provide accelerated yield, as you only need to place the pods under soil and water for the seeds to start germinating, and these pods can be generic seeds such as tamarind, soursop, chillies, beans, etc., or customisable to rare tree species. Thuru has commercialised this product intending to create a customer-centric tree-planting landscape.

Thuru is a social innovation, and they have introduced new technologies to accelerate reforestation. Jayaweera shared that they have chosen to walk a strategic path in their pursuit. When asked if they do take part in programmes beyond introducing new technologies to accelerate reforestation, he shared that while they do not take on an activist’s role, they are working with the relevant authorities including the Forest Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), and the Department of Agriculture to address some root issues. He said that a primary concern in deforestation is agricultural activities, and for the most part, farmers are often justified, as, with the increase in population, there are more mouths to feed and hence, the need for more land to cultivate. However, he shared that they are currently working on formulating methodologies that allow for equal, if not more, yield from one’s existing land, without having to expand.

In their efforts to digitise tree-planting, last year, Thuru introduced their online store, a multi-function online store providing its customers with access to its green solutions and related products. Through Thuru, plants may be bought, gifted, or included as part of CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives. At present, they are making deliveries in two districts – Colombo and Gampaha. However, Jayaweera shared that soon, they hope to expand their reach and make the service available in more corners of the island. He shared that surprisingly, the pandemic has resulted in a spike in their sales, particularly during these past few months, as many people have chosen to put their free time to good use. He said that in his experience, from the time he first initiated Thuru, it is incredibly encouraging to see how informed and motivated people are when it comes to protecting their environment, and that he hopes the trend continues on with more people becoming proactive in their newfound passion.