Ropes for Hope

Originally published on November 10, 2014.

December 26th 2004, is an infamous day engrained in the memories of many Sri Lankans. A day when 30,000 Sri Lankan people, and the lives they had built, were smashed by the waves of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and washed back into the ocean.

Abdul Manaf Manarudeen, owner of a small business in Maruthamunai, Kalmunai, Eastern Province, is one of those people who was affected. His house and possessions were among those swept into the ocean. His 3-year-old son was one of the 30,000.

One of Anchor Coir’s many female employees, prepares to use a new coir production machine, procured by Land O’Lakes.
However, from the wake of the waves that decimated Maruthamunai and much of Sri Lanka’s Eastern and Southern coastal towns that day, Mr. Manarudeen has grabbed a hold of the coir industry in the region, and pulled himself to a newly rebuilt life, and business, Anchor Coir Industries Private Limited. Coir is the fiber that comes from coconut husks, from which numerous products are made, including rope, used for rice paddy harvesting and fishing, two key economic activities in the region.
The work of Anchor Coir is interesting and one of the projects that the USAID-funded VEGA/BIZ+ project is supporting, which is uniquely Sri Lankan. VEGA/BIZ+ is implemented through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA), by  Land O’Lakes International Development.
The coir production industry takes the adage, “waste not, want not” very seriously, making use of all coir extracted from the husks of the country’s ubiquitous coconut. Mr. Manarudeen produces a wide variety of products ranging from floor mats, to brooms, to rope. With his recent expansion, he is now producing coco peat (coir dust) bricks, which are used for insulation.

It is important to note that while the coir production industry thrives in many parts of Sri Lanka, dotted with its coconut trees, it isn’t an industry which has yet taken hold in the Eastern Province where Anchor Coir is located. It is this vacuum that Mr. Manarudeen sought to fill. “At first I was growing frustrated. I tried to find a market for my products, but the market was already saturated with suppliers from Kurunegela and Puttalam. I couldn’t compete. However buyers were becoming frustrated with the quality of coir products from outside. With this new site and machinery, I have the ability to sell better value products that the people want; the best products!”

With the assistance from the VEGA/BIZ+ program, Mr. Manarudeen has invested in an expansion for which he can be proud. From a small structure that sheltered his handful of machines, he moved into a newly constructed concrete, roofed structure that houses 12 new coir production machines. A 14 million Rupee (USD $109,000) contribution from BIZ+ formed half of the total investment that brought Anchor Coir to where it is today. The grant supported construction of a modern and appropriately designed production facility as well as additional production machines, a coco peat baling machine, a delivery vehicle, and a generator. Mr. Manarudeen matched BIZ+’s contribution.
In addition to more than doubling his production of rope and other products, with the new baling machine, Mr. Manarudeen can greatly increase the value of the coco peat. Before, he sold the fine dust to other brick makers, but now he has more than doubled the value of this product by making the bricks himself.  

He credits the VEGA/BIZ+ project with putting him on the local map. “In the past, you could ask for me, but no one knew where my office was, no one really knew who I was. Now, whenever someone is looking for coir products, anyone in the area will point them in my direction. For that, I have not just USAID to thank, but the American people too.”

That gratitude is etched into the new facility. In beautifully intricate wood carvings above the windows and doors of the newly built factory are the words: VEGA/BIZ+, USAID, in addition to their own ACIPL.

It is not just Mr. Manarudeen who benefits from Anchor Coir’s expansion. The business, which previously employed 21 people, will now employ 101 people, almost all women. In this community hard hit by the long-term civil war, and then the tsunami, job opportunities are essential to rebuilding lives. Additionally, Mr. Manarudeen, a Muslim, also makes a deliberate effort to have a diverse work force, which promotes reconciliation among different ethnic groups. He says, “My doors are always open, to whoever comes to work with me. Tamil, Muslim, Sinhala, I will help them all. All are welcome.”

The strands of success extend beyond Mr. Manarudeen’s factory. For years, he has been supporting the Aharam Social Organisation, a non-profit group that assists widowed, women headed households through outsourcing the production of some of his products such as brooms. The organization, which is based just down the road from Mr. Manarudeen’s factory, has approximately 450 members, 50 of whom will soon be fully employed by Mr. Manarudeen as a result of his expansion. Ms. Amutha, Secretary of Aharam, points out that, “As the head of a family with no husband, we don’t have any more expectations in life. Whatever opportunity allows us to provide for our families, for ourselves, we will take it and we are happy for it.”

Ms. T. Sobitha, who has been working at Anchor Coir for three years to support her three children, describes one of the most important changes that the Land O’Lakes-assisted expansion has brought to their lives: Stability. “Earlier, when we lost power, production stopped. They would tell us not to come to work because we could not get any work done. Now, we can be more confident. Even when the power fails, we have the generator.” This generator procured by BIZ+ provides a piece of stability, which is important to people whose lives have been disrupted – by war and natural disaster.
One of Anchor Coir’s employees, 27-year-old Ms. R. Logini, who was married and abandoned by her husband, and takes care of two teenage siblings, talks of the benefits that the new coir production machines have brought to her life. “Before, we didn’t have enough machines and we had to do some work manually, which was tough. These new machines have made our days a lot easier.” She laughs and adds, “It’s nice to have more space to work in, and now I can say with pride that I work in this factory.” It’s easy to understand that pride when you look at the pinned up photograph of the previous structure, and then look around you at the brand new concrete building that they can call their place of work.

Revival, hope, stability, pride, is what this expansion has given the people of this factory, and its owner. They are all woven together to form a strong and sustainable partnership.

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