Acres of Potential

Originally published on November 24, 2015.

K.D.N. Wijesiri, Chairman of Asiri Holdings Lanka, and Chamith Dinushan, Asiri's CEO, have hired 88 new employees as of September 2015, many of whom were previously unemployed.
Sri Lanka is an island of many different landscapes: from its sun-kissed beaches, to the tea-bush covered slopes of the central highlands; but none are more ubiquitous than the verdant paddy fields that dot the country. In few places are they more prevalent than in Eastern Province’s Ampara district, Sri Lanka’s second-largest producer of rice.

With such a great dependence on paddy farming, and given the area’s increased use of mechanized farming, the manufacture and service of higher-tech agricultural equipment has become increasingly important to local residents. Asiri Holdings Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd. has excelled in meeting this need.

In February 2015, Asiri opened a new factory for their agricultural machinery repair and retail operation in Ampara. Named Kalana Engineering Technologies, the new factory was constructed and stocked in partnership with VEGA/BIZ+, a 4-year program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Led by Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA) and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, VEGA/BIZ+ is supporting the expansion of small and medium-sized enterprises that have the potential for substantial job creation and economic growth across 10 economically lagging districts of Sri Lanka.

The parent company, Asiri, was already a well-established business in Ampara, operating for nearly 20 years as a service agent and distributor of spare parts for agricultural equipment. However, through their $1.4  million partnership with VEGA/BIZ+, Kalana is now equipped to serve a much wider market – and create 182 new jobs in the process – 88 of whom had been hired as of September 2015. Just as important, Kalana’s growth will enable them to deliver more comprehensive services, greater convenience and lower costs to their customers.

The expansion made possible through VEGA/BIZ+ has enabled Asiri to expand their offerings to include customized products
Moreover, their increased ability to meet local farmers’ needs for well-functioning, productivity-enhancing equipment will have an important ripple effect on the district’s economy and goals of agricultural prosperity. The potential for Kalana’s business is great in a district where more than half of the district’s 162,224 families are farmers. While the size of land owned and farmed varies, paddy farming requires significant labor. As growing numbers of farmers invest in mechanized farming, Kalana will be well-prepared to meet their needs.

In addition to financing the import and installation of the necessary technology and industrial equipment for Kalana’s factory, the $398,000 grant from VEGA/BIZ+ provided a transport vehicle that will enable the business to collect damaged equipment and deliver new or repaired equipment directly to their customers. The cornerstone of the Kalana operation is the factory they constructed in conjunction with VEGA/BIZ+, which is housing new equipment that enables the business to manufacture and assemble a wide array of agricultural machinery and parts. This creates a competitive advantage, both by allowing Kalana to sell their equipment at a lower cost than their competitors, and also by providing their clients with a one-stop shop that integrates sales, repair, service and even training at a location close to their homes. To add to their unique offerings, Kalana is the only firm in the area that sells disk plows, which are used to till soil in preparation for seeding.

Asiri’s chairman K. D. N. Wijesiri says the Kalana operation has already hit the ground running. “Now that we have the capacity to customize our products according to customers’ requests, we are being approached by local small-scale garages. We are also in negotiations with the local irrigation and agriculture department to provide machinery.” Additionally, Dave Tractors & Combines, a nationwide dealer of agricultural machinery that has four dealerships in Ampara district alone, has requested that Kalana submit designs for tractor trailers and bowsers (water delivery trailers), in a view of a potential partnership.

[Asiri] employees are now in a safer, stable environment, where they can use their talents while living with their families once again.

Chamith Dinushan (CEO, Asiri Holding Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd.)

In addition to the pride that comes from knowing their firm can play a meaningful role in the district’s agricultural growth, Kalana’s leadership also recognizes their duty to be responsible employers and corporate citizens, too. Chamith Dinushan, the company’s CEO, declared, “It is not enough for a company to merely be profitable; it needs to demonstrate good corporate citizenship through environmental awareness, ethical behavior and sound governance practices.”

Mr. Dinushan hailed VEGA/BIZ+’s comprehensive due diligence requirements, which are a prerequisite for all 35 grantees the program supports. They include obtaining environmental approvals – something that is not necessarily adhered to throughout the island, due to a lack of oversight. As a businessman, Mr. Dinushan sees the value, and said he believes that a lack of knowledge in this area is the main reason why environmental protection measures are not incorporated into the expansion of small and medium-sized enterprises in Sri Lanka. “Knowing and understanding the environmental protection requirements will avoid unnecessary costs and damage to your business.”

The VEGA/BIZ+ program was designed to facilitate sustainable business growth that can last well beyond the initial investment. One of the ways the program ensures sustainability is by requiring that grantees co-invest in their own growth; Asiri’s US $1 million investment was more than double what they received from VEGA/BIZ+. The company’s funding went towards constructing three new factory buildings and investing in new machinery, equipment and raw materials.

Asiri has contributed more than $8,000 towards safety equipment for its employees.
But they invested in more than pure infrastructure. By bringing on so many new staff, the VEGA/BIZ+ program’s occupational safety requirements ensured that Asiri also invested in the health and wellbeing of their personnel. More than US $8,000 of Asiri’s contribution to Kalana supported the purchase of safety equipment for employees, a sum that Mr. Dinushan believes is an invaluable investment for growth. “If your workers aren’t healthy, they aren’t productive, and if they’re not productive, you’re not making money. Investing in health and safety at work has to be looked upon as an investment rather than a cost.”

While Asiri is setting itself up for greater commercial success, as well as being a model for a safer working environment, one of their key commitments under the VEGA/BIZ+ grant is job creation. Not only have they created 88 employment opportunities, but they are mostly going to local staff who were previously unemployed; for more than 10 of their new hires, Asiri is their first job, and 90% of new hires hail from Ampara. Mr. Dinushan adds, “Many new hires used to work informal jobs without employer contributions that can be withdrawn when leaving a job or written contracts, they were also working far away from their homes. These employees are now in a safer, stable environment, where they can use their talents while living with their families once again.” Asiri doesn’t just offer convenience to its customers, but to its employees, too.

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