Hungry for Peace: New Bakery Feeds the Masses during Historic Papal Visit

Originally published on June 18, 2015.

Kalpana Prabhakaran never imagined that Pope Francis’ historic visit to Sri Lanka would provide her with the perfect opportunity to launch her landmark bakery on a truly grand stage. While the Pope fed the hearts and minds of the hundreds of thousands of faithful who assembled together outside Our Lady of Madhu Shrine to hear him speak, Mrs. Prabhakaran and her staff from White Stone Bakery stood ready to fill their bellies with delicious treats.

White Stone Bakery owner Kalpana Prabhakaran says VEGA/BIZ+ enabled her to meet the market opportunity provided by Pope Francis’ historic visit to Sri Lanka
The fact that White Stone Bakery was able to rise to the occasion and meet the demands of such a massive event is all the more impressive when considering it wasn’t until June 2014 that Mrs. Prabhakaran received a catalytic grant from the VEGA/BIZ+ program to establish her business, with full operations beginning just over a month before the Pope’s visit in January 2015. The U.S. Agency for International Development-funded VEGA/BIZ+ program, led by Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA) and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, co-invests in businesses with the potential for transformative growth and job creation in economically lagging areas of Sri Lanka. 

“Our dream materialized due to this holy event and provided us with a market penetration opportunity and the confidence to sustain our customer base,” Mrs. Prabhakaran explained. “We were able to establish four temporary sales outlets at the shrine during the Holy Pope's visit there. We decided to produce and introduce new products to the customers to establish goodwill about the newly opened White Stone Bakery across the region.” 

White Stone Bakery sold 11,000 muffins, 2,000 donuts, 1,000 curry buns and 200 peanut cookies to the throngs who had assembled at the Shrine, and received special training from their raw materials supplier AB Mauri in advance on how to make donuts and muffins, which were new products for the bakery. Mrs. Prabhakaran’s bakery is the first of its kind in northern Sri Lanka with the capacity to manufacture baked goods with preservatives, so as to have a longer shelf life.

I am always thankful to the assistance provided by the American people. It will definitely help the war-affected people here, especially by providing improved livelihoods support for women.

Kalpana Prabhakaran (Owner, White Stone Bakery)

During the Pope’s historic visit in January 2015, he canonized Sri Lanka’s first saint as a model for unity, and called for post-conflict ethnic reconciliation among all residents following the 26-year conflict that ended in 2009. The Madhu Shrine is located in northern Sri Lanka’s Mannar district, about two hours from the White Stone Bakery flagship store in Kilinochchi. The war had a detrimental impact on business growth and entrepreneurship in most of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, fueled inter-ethnic tension, and devastated the region’s physical infrastructure.

Mrs. Prabhakaran’s decision to establish her business in an area as economically depressed as Kilinochchi is rooted in her own experience of being affected by conflict, and wanting to create shared value through the nexus of business growth that also makes a positive social and economic impact in the community. “Given my family’s experiences, I don’t only have a profit motive: I decided to establish my business here so that I could earn money and support affected people with new jobs at the same time.” White Stone also sources much of its raw materials locally, providing much needed market for those who produce eggs and other ingredients for the bakery. 

Ms. Prabhakaran, left, and her new hires share a laugh while she trains them in the art of icing cakes
“Initially, my idea was just to expand the family’s Vavuniya bakery into Kilinochchi to sell fresh bread and small snacks,” Mrs. Prabhakaran explained. “But through VEGA/BIZ+’s engagement in the business development planning process, I decided to manufacture a range of bakery goods, too, including cakes, cookies, cupcakes and long-life bread.” 

The VEGA/BIZ+ program requires that grantees fund at least half of the total investment required to realize their business development plans. Mrs. Prabhakaran’s $230,301 contribution was used to cover the cost of constructing a modern building for the bakery, part of its new equipment and furniture, and working capital. Meanwhile, the $197,315 grant from the VEGA/BIZ+ program purchased specialized bakery equipment and machinery from England and South Africa, as well as a delivery vehicle.

VEGA/BIZ+ is also providing the White Stone team with technical assistance and training to improve the quality of their finished products and become more energy efficient. The program has helped her improve her financial systems, establish human resource protocols and secure the proper government authorizations for all of her efforts. She is also adhering to new environmental standards, including water quality testing, the reduction and proper handling of solid waste, and she is developing a recycling plan with the local government. “This was all very helpful for me. In fact, I’ve already begun applying my new knowledge from VEGA/BIZ+ to our other companies, and we have actually already changed our systems,” she said.

White Stone Bakery staff ice donuts, which were among the sweets they sold during the Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka
Despite her initial success, Mrs. Prabhakaran has big dreams not only for future business growth, but for doing it in a way that cascades social benefits to more war-affected Sri Lankans. She is planning to open two of four additional retail outlets in Kilinochchi in March 2015, which will enable her to employ 15 more local people. With plans to establish outlets in the nearby towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna as well, White Stone is on its way to achieving its target of creating 81 jobs. To date, all of White Stone’s hires have been from Kilinochchi, benefiting a population that was hard-hit during Sri Lanka’s civil war. This includes four female heads-of-household, and Mrs. Prabhakaran plans to increase the number of vulnerable residents that her business benefits through a grassroots distribution network that will target one female-headed household in each interior village, who can sell her products on commission.

Furthermore, White Stone’s revenue is already benefiting Kilinochchi’s economy, in the form of local sellers from whom the business sources its ingredients. In January 2015 alone, White Stone bought 8,120 eggs, 38 percent of which were from three local sellers, who also provided the business with 191 kgs. of vegetables and spices. At this rate, the suppliers will earn an equivalent of US 5,345.87 in annual sales to White Stone alone. As these partnerships strengthen, White Stone’s market expansion is expected to continue to have a positive reverberating impact on the economic growth for their suppliers, too. 

Despite all of Mrs. Prabhakaran’s planning on marketing and distribution, the Pope’s visit gave her an opportunity to catapult White Stone Bakery to a new level of customer awareness and market penetration in one fell swoop. "This breakthrough was made possible because of VEGA/BIZ+ and USAID’s contributions. We simply could not have achieved this if we had not received this massive support from the U.S. We were able to use our new equipment to produce quality products, while our new truck enabled us to transporting bulk products on time to satisfy market demand.”

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