Jamunadevi Ponnampalam remembers when it was just three women, trying to make a living during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
“There was nothing here, no electricity and all the shops were closed. Even the Kandy Road was closed, and we had to go to mainland Jaffna, an hour away, if we wanted to just buy some flour.”
The year was 2007, and Jamunadevi and her friends had just established the Social Education Center in Punkudutivu, a small island off the country’s northern coast. “We have dedicated our lives to social service,” she says. Their intention was to provide training and employment opportunities for young women, while using local resources, such as palmyrah root and medicinal herbs that grow locally.
The war ended in 2009, but Jamunadevi felt women in the area were still struggling, and this was particularly true of the young girls who had dropped out of school.
“We would go from house to house selling our products,” says Jamunadevi. Soon smaller grocers became interested in stocking their simple, high-quality products. As the business grew, they renamed it the Pungudutivu Food Manufacturers (PFM).
In 2011, through UNDP assistance, they set up a milling unit which meant they could produce rice flour, chili powder and other nutritional products.
“However, we still could see we had some limitations,” Jamunadevi says. “We didn’t have a measuring scale, or a wok for roasting; our packaging was very basic.” Though a few small shops were stocking their produce, they could only supply a kilogram or so at a time.
UNDP stepped in again, this time under the Government of Canada funded Agro Economic Development Project so that the organization could build their capacity to adapt, innovate and thrive in a challenging marketplace.
The women re-organized their business, adopting a new plan that redesigned their processing and production lines. They created a new logo and attractive packaging and marketing materials, which helped the business to sell in bulk to reputed shops and supermarket chains.
Soon their products began to appear in specialty shops in Colombo, and the demand among Sri Lankan diaspora kept growing.
The organization knew that they had a niche market, so even while they upgraded to compete in the modern marketplace, they held to the traditional practices that had established their brand, such as roasting ingredients over firewood.
Their workforce grew to 17 female employees and another five part-time workers, each earning somewhere between US$57 — $86 per month. Twenty members were enrolled in a year of comprehensive training on food processing. Each participant received a stipend of about US$32 a month, which allowed them to focus on upgrading their skills.
Subramaniam Sithra was one of those who took part. She is married to a fisherman, and this was one of the very few good options for work in her village.
“I didn’t want to just sit at home,” she says, “I wanted to contribute so that our family was not dependent just on my husband’s income.”
The challenge for fishing families such as hers was that they were reliant on good weather — a bad storm meant days of earning just washed away.
Sithra’s income and confidence has increased along with her experience. “There is a new ambition in me,” she says. “For the first time we are making plans for the future. I was able to buy 50 perches of land and am now saving to build a house with a toilet. We also want to save for our children’s education.”
“Now she has learned so much and conducts herself in such a manner that she has gained our respect. She is in a situation where she can tell her husband what to do, and he will actually listen to her,” says PFM accountant Appar Sangeetha.
Jamunadevi is pleased to report that PFM is thriving. Sales revenue has increased by 41.8 percent from the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period the year before.
Sitting surrounded by her team, Jamunadevi says she is satisfied. “When we started out, we had a vision: to employ women in this area so that income goes back to the household, to do this using local produce in order to support our community, and to create clean and healthy food to benefit all. I can see these goals are being met, and that always encourages me.”
Story and photos by UNDP Sri Lanka