New business skills for Sri Lankans recovering from conflict

UN Development Programme
Jul 21 · 5 min read
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“I had the technical knowledge, but had no clue about starting up a business or managing it,” Benedict Andrew said. “The training I received at YED equipped me to not only set up my own bike shop, but also taught me how to acquire customers and retain them.”

Humming along to a tune on the radio, Andrew fixes a broken clutch cable of a motorbike. With a framed picture of a deity hanging against the freshly painted wall, this new garage smells like hope and makes work look like play.

At 21, Benedict Andrew is already his own boss, with three employees. His motorbike garage, ‘ABS Bike Repairing & Spare Parts’ is located in Sinna Punanai, on the main road between Colombo and Jaffna. He fixes at least two bikes a day.

Not long ago, Andrew was a labourer at a repair shop in Oddamavadi. After training in Anuradhapura and Colombo, he became a certified motorcycle mechanic.

Qualification in hand, when Andrew was looking for a breakthrough in his career is when he encountered a UNDP project which supports families in Sinna Punanai, where many families have settled in the aftermath Sri Lanka’s long civil conflict.

Support to Sustainable Resettlement in Sri Lanka’ is funded by the Government of the United Kingdom. The project consists of a Youth Entrepreneurship Development’ Programme,’ (YED) which addresses the problem of skills shortages. It focused on teaching employable skills and business development.

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At 21, Benedict Andrew is already his own boss, with three employees. His motorbike garage, ‘ABS Bike Repairing & Spare Parts’ is located in Sinna Punanai, on the main road between Colombo and Jaffna.

Andrew not only learned business planning and customer relationship management, but also secured a bank loan with lower interest rates. He was also provided with a compressor, a high-pressure washer, and the tools to set up his shop.

“I had the technical knowledge, but had no clue about starting up a business or managing it,” he said. “The training I received at YED equipped me to not only set up my own bike shop, but also taught me how to acquire customers and retain them.”

A few months into operations Andrew launched a 24-hour mobile service. Equipped with tools and a trusty radio, he and his crew get called out when riders have breakdowns.

“I have also learned not to wait for business to come to me. I want to be known in this area as someone that can be called upon in an automobile emergency situation,” he said.

The project is helping more than just Andrew; he is proud that he can now support his family.

“My parents have been through many hardships during the years of the conflict, now that we have finally settled down, I hope to take care of them and provide for them with the help of my new enterprise.”

The sun is relentless in this little village of Punanai, but so is she.

Bent over in quiet concentration, Kokilakanthi mixes cement, sand, and gravel in a tin shed next to her home. Beside her stands the concrete block machine. The day has just begun and there are already some hundred blocks baking in the sun. Somewhere not too far away, a well is to be built, and awaits the arrival of her blocks.

Kokilakanthi is a single mother in her early thirties with two daughters aged eight and three.

A former combatant, who was injured during the fighting, Kokilakanthi was eventually reunited with her family. She got married and started her family. Life seemed to smile upon her until her husband left her a few years ago. She moved back to her parents’ home with her daughters and, since, has been looking for means to sustain her little family without being a burden.

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“I had never been away from my children from the time of their births, now, I can stay at home, run my own block-cutting business, make money, and also be with my daughters,” Kokilakanthi said.

It was then that she met personnel from UNDP and its partner organization ‘Kavya’, and took part in the Youth Entrepreneurship Development Programme.

It included a five-day workshop where she learned about business models and development plans and received expert advice for her start-up. The concept of starting a business on her own was new to Kokilakanthi, it had not even occurred to her before, but she was determined to start something to ensure her daughters’ education and future. Following the workshop, when UNDP had a discussion with her about how it could help her stand on her own feet, she requested for a concrete block machine. It would change the way she felt about herself and her future.

“Growing up, I had seen my father making blocks at work sheds of other people for daily wages. It was something I was familiar with, and thanks to the confidence instilled in me by the five-day workshop conducted by UNDP, I was ready to embark on this new home business.”

“I had never been away from my children from the time of their births, although it was difficult for me to leave them behind and attend the YED workshop for five days, I am grateful to the organization for holding it, because now, I can stay at home, run my own block-cutting business, make money, and also be with my daughters. “My biggest fear was being a burden to my parents, and now I don’t have to worry about it,” she said.

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“My biggest fear was being a burden to my parents, and now I don’t have to worry about it,” Kokilakanthi said.

That was six months ago. Today she employs two assistants and supplies concrete blocks for buildings in the area. UNDP has also linked her with contractors in the vicinity. As the sole supplier in her village, Kokilakanthi’s largest order was for 1,000 blocks — an accomplishment she is proud of.

Although Kokilakanthi feels that she has now taken control over her life, there are still challenges.

“When it rains, there is no way I can fulfill orders or take new ones. The rain washes away the newly made blocks and causes me losses. The next step would be to find funding for an enclosed work shed, so I can continue making blocks, no matter the weather,” she said.

To be able to look forward to the future despite the setbacks seems to be an art Kokilakanthi has mastered, and perhaps an art that has helped her succeed at her home business.

‘Support to Sustainable Resettlement in Sri Lanka’ is a project implemented by the Government of Sri Lanka and UNDP with funding from the Government of the United Kingdom. Through its Youth Entrepreneurship Development Programme, more than 60 young people in Batticaloa have been able to improve their skills to start their entrepreneurship journey.

Story and photos by UNDP Sri Lanka

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