Sri Lanka: A taste of success

Published: 26 June 2009 0:00 CET

Amanda George, British Red Cross, Sri Lanka This is the last in a series of four profiles/case studies, looking at how Red Cross Red Crescent has helped people to rebuild their own lives after the tsunami in Indonesia.

Piyadasa Leelawathie and her two nieces Sinnathambi Kesai and Madhavan Oviam have embarked on a small business that is yielding excellent results.

Leelawathie and Kesai are both widows, and are the beneficiaries of a grant from the British Red Cross. They used the money to start up their own business making string hoppers - a local food made from rice noodles curled into flat spirals.

They live in Kunjamkulam village, Vaharai, an area of Batticaloa, east Sri Lanka that has been badly affected by both the ongoing armed conflict and the tsunami. As a result, the British Red Cross has been working in this area since early 2005 to help residents recover from the impact of both disasters.

Impact of conflict

For much of the past 20 years Sri Lanka has experienced fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed group that wants an independent homeland in the north and east of the country. Leelawathie explains the impact the conflict has had on her life:

“We were displaced by the conflict and forced to live in camps for five months,” she says. “When we came back, we found our houses had been destroyed in the fighting. We had no form of livelihoods left.

“The government gave us a ration of one kilo each of rice, flour and dhal per person every two months. We also did a little bit of fishing. But this was not sufficient to live on. That is when the Red Cross Red Crescent stepped in to help us.”

Precarious food security

Leelawathie and her nieces were also recipients of a cash equivalent of a food (CEF) ration before the grant in June 2007, after they had been resettled in Kunjamkulam. At this time there was a precarious food security situation.

In order to provide basic food assistance, the British Red Cross implemented a three month project that provided households in Vaharai with a CEF ration. This was designed to give families an economic boost, purchasing power at the local market, and contribute to the purchase of clothes.

The CEF rations were then followed by the distribution of cash grants to start up small businesses. Leelawathie explains how they got started: “This is a very poor and remote area and we are widows. The British Red Cross asked us to come up with an idea for a business and, from our ideas, they helped us to identify a business that we could run by ourselves from home.”

A stable livelihood

The impact on their lives has been substantial, as Leelawathie explains: “We now have a stable livelihood. After the help from the British Red Cross, our economic status is much better than before and we can maintain this level of financial security without outside help.

“We hope to expand our enterprise a little more by maybe buying a cow or some goats. That should help make us a little more money, because since we have to buy raw materials with our income, there isn’t very much profit left to split three ways.”

Kunjamkulam village is in a very remote area of Vaharai, as Leelawathie describes: “Our business is successful because there is nowhere around here to buy anything. The nearest place is Valachchennai, and to get there you have to walk seven miles from the village and then take a bus. A shopping trip like this starts at 6am and ends at 6pm.”

Security situation

Leelawathie continues, “The security situation at the moment is stable. My house is the closest to the army camp - around 50 metres - but we have not had any trouble. They know us now. So even when they see us walking around at 2am, they don’t ask any questions.

“But when there was fighting in this area, we had to flee our homes three times to avoid shelling. Sometimes we had to spend the night in the jungle.”

Kesai describes their daily routine: “We get up at 2am to travel to Leelawathie’s house. We first make around 250 string hoppers which we finish by 5am. Then we make the sambal. Oviam and I go out to sell while Leelawathie cleans up. When we return after selling the string hoppers, then we all help Oviam make another 100 vadai.

“Our daily income is around 650 rupees (circa 7 CHF),” she continues. “This is 650 rupees more than we had before and will allow us to grow our business. This grant has helped us so much.”