Sunday, May 10, 2009

Our land of missed opportunities but I am still hopeful

I gave a up a comfortable life in the West four and half years ago, to try and make a go of life in rural Sri Lanka, making use of opportunities afforded to me, to build an agro based enterprise from scratch. Many people mistakenly assumed, that I prematurely retired from the hustle and bustle of city life to live in cozy retirement away from the cares of the world.

This period has been full of, and continues to be a litany of pitfalls more than blessings, and as I begun with minimal capital and a negative cash flow farm, it has been the most difficult struggle of my life. I can honestly say the main reason, that I have been able to survive for so long under the conditions, were that my needs are few with no family commitments, having lived on less than US$10 a month for personal expenses, and the belief that eventually I would succeed making the sacrifices worthwhile.

I had hoped to be over the hill in about 3 years, as that was all I had budgeted to survive, however I have still to achieve that initial target, and while I believe I am going in the right direction, the human resources that fate deemed I have to deal with let me down, something I had completely miscalculated on. In this field I have entered into, one relies on the honesty, integrity and attitude of the people one relies on, purely because I just don’t have the physical ability to oversea everything I do. I am glad that I did not borrow funds to finance my activities, except for a Rs100,000 loan I took against my only life insurance policy. I have had to supplement shortfalls out of consultancies, as I have no financial resources to fall back on.

Now I have a clearer vision of what I need to do to achieve my goals, and also how I can finance the capital required for that, as well as hiring the right people for the tasks. The initial years have been essential in knowing the limitations of what can reasonably be expected. One bitter lesson I have learned in Sri Lanka is that the armchair critics and pundits, using anecdotal examples and figures build castles in the air with gratuitous advice that is wholly unpractical in the Sri Lanka of today, which is also vastly different to the Sri Lanka of yesterday, in that I mean pre 1977.

Crucial to this equation is understanding the nuances of the vastly inflated expectations of the work force who have been completely spoilt by successive governments that have promised far more than they can deliver. This along with the release provided by the massive exodus for overseas employment that have created a severe skill shortage and also a devastating effect on the work ethic of those remaining, together with the war that has recruited the pool of all our youth with high income expectations in the security forces, means we must recreate industry based on the same level of labor saving devices used in the west, and not even for a moment assume this is a country of low wages.

On the point of low wages, even though the theoretical wage maybe lower, the actual wage is very high perhaps 3 times higher, when taking vacation time, productivity, lack of reliability and need for supervision, something our policy makers have not taken into consideration. The added dimension of the lower level of morality, also one that adds significantly to employment cost, creates a need for a very small, reliable workforce restricted as much as possible in number of locations, that need to be managed for an individual engaging in a business.

There is so much development work and industry that can be generated in Sri Lanka given the resources it has excluding the human element. The government instead of only managing its main task of setting up a low cost infrastructure, good governance and law enforcement, try to meddle in everything else and create inefficiencies that add to the cost of private enterprise. As a farmer these costs are I believe even greater than that industrialists have to bear, effectively reducing instead of increasing the productivity of that sector.

I can write a book, just listing out the businesses I believe that are viable in Sri Lanka, there is so much unfulfilled demand, due to unfulfilled expectations, and we continue to prevent the entrepreneurial spirit of many in the Island, by putting controls that favor stooges of politicians, and government, taxes that are barriers, oligopolies that favor a few, and despite the talk, not really support small businesses with lending, because the lenders (staff evaluating the loans) are risk averse salaried people who do not know about risk and reward in a business venture.

I believe there is a pool of budding entrepreneurs in rural areas, who need husbanding and help, but we do not have a culture of individualism, so they need to be able to go it alone with assistance in the skills of running a business, complementing the talent they have in the products or services they can offer. These openings will reduce the skills drain overseas and with good governance I have repeatedly called for, will complete the foundation.

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