Sewing Lives Back Together in Sri Lanka

Originally published on October 9, 2014.

Nalayini Uthayaseelan faced one challenge after another as a young woman in Sri Lanka. Her father died during the civil war. With no employment opportunities at home, her mother left Nalayini and two younger children with their grandmother in Vavuniya, in the North of Sri Lanka, to take a job in another country. Nalayini, who was born in India as a refugee during the conflict, missed her final years of secondary education because she did not have the required Sri Lankan documentation to attend school.

“As the oldest of three siblings, it became my responsibility to earn an income to take care of my family. But it was difficult to find a good opportunity in this area,” explained Nalayini.

Her fortunes changed when she found out that a local garment factory located about two kilometers (less than one mile) from her home was expanding. She applied for work and was invited to begin a paid apprenticeship with the invaluable opportunity to learn new, marketable skills. With a bicycle provided for transport and a salary of over Rs. 7,100 per month (approximately $55) as part of the deal, this was like a dream come true for Nalayini.

Nalayini Uthayaseelan at her sewing machine in the Kobithan Garments (Pvt) Ltd. factory
This life-changing opportunity came about as a result of a partnership that Nayalini’s employer, Kobithan Garments (Pvt) Ltd., had entered into with the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA)/BIZ+ program in February 2013 to expand its business. VEGA/BIZ+ is a four-year program implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development that is working to stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and strengthen livelihoods in areas of Sri Lanka that are working to recover from economic setbacks including 26 years of conflict and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The program does this by providing viable local enterprises with matching grants and the technical know-how to succeed. Through its Public Private Alliance program, VEGA/BIZ+ is partnering with small and medium-sized businesses to create 5,000 new jobs in the country and significantly increase household income in vulnerable communities.

“Since I started working here, I can comfortably pay for my younger brother’s and sister’s school tuition and supplies, and I can also buy food for the family,” said Nalayini.

“My grandmother needs special medicines which are not provided for in the government healthcare system, and I can now afford to buy these at a private pharmacy,” she adds.

The new bicycle, part of a consignment of bicycles and motorcycles provided as part of the investment grant, makes it easy for Nalayini to commute to work and back home to her family. This is not only practical, but also goes a long way towards ensuring the sustainability and long-term success of the initiative.

In the recent past, because of the war, financial institutions did not offer business loans, and personal loans carried high interest rates of 18-24%, making them out of reach for small-scale entrepreneurs. This prevented Mrs. Kohilathevi Asokumar, the founder and owner of Kobithan Garments (Pvt) Ltd. from creating the larger-scale garment manufacturing business of her dreams.

“In this business, profit margins are really narrow. The only way to boost profits is to increase production,” explained Mrs. Asokumar.

Today, thanks to the partnership with VEGA/BIZ+, the expanded factory building opened in March 2014 has transformed Kobithan Garments from a humble microenterprise in Vavuniya with a single sewing machine and three semi-skilled staff to an expanded garment factory that employs 41 women in production, finance and sales.

“The partnership with VEGA/BIZ+ has not only created these jobs for women, but has also helped me construct a bigger, more modern work area and purchase industrial-quality sewing machines. This has helped me increase production by over 30%.”

“Through the partnership, I was also able to buy a generator, which has been a great help as our work is no longer interrupted by power cuts. This is good for my business and also vital for ensuring the stable income of my employees, who need to provide for their families,” Mrs. Asokumar added.

Considering high inflation, and an increasing cost of living, women have to find ways to contribute to their family’s well-being and join the workforce, and I am happy to be able to offer them new opportunities.

Mrs. Kohilathevi Asokumar (Owner, Kobithan Garments (Pvt) Ltd.)

Kobithan Garments is just one of at least 35 businesses that is participating in the tailored investment partnerships that VEGA/BIZ+ is supporting. These local enterprises will add thousands of much-needed jobs to the Sri Lankan economy in the vulnerable North, East, and North Central Provinces by June 2015. At least 50% of the new jobs will go to women - the primary targets of jobs in these communities. These include a large number of war widows who have suffered immensely as a result of the country’s civil war.

In addition to supporting the physical expansion of the premises and supporting the purchase of production equipment, VEGA/BIZ+ has worked with Mrs. Asokumar to understand the challenges that often limit young women’s employment opportunities in Northern Sri Lanka.

“Hiring new staff has enabled me to contribute positively to the community by helping to increase the income level of poor women living in the adjoining villages,” said Mrs. Asokumar.

“The company now has a much higher profile and thanks to VEGA/BIZ+ we are functioning smartly and efficiently, a smiling Mrs. Asokumar adds.

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