Compiled by Isanka Perera
A SELF-SUSTAINING ISLAND
Ariyaseela Wickramanayake emphasises the need to opt for local products
Q: Year 2021 was very challenging for the country. What’s your take on the economic outlook for Sri Lanka?
A: Yes, it’s been challenging but this is not something that we have had much control over. What has been done cannot be undone; and therefore, we must concentrate on what we can manage.
Sri Lanka is a nation full of resources. Compared to other countries, we have the geographical advantage of being located on the East-West trade route, playing neighbour to the Indian subcontinent and situated almost astride the equator.
Our main cultivation seasons – Maha and Yala, which are concurrent with monsoon rains – enjoy guaranteed sunshine for 12 hours a day and this virtually assures agricultural prosperity.
There is no other country like Sri Lanka; and despite minor setbacks, I’m certain that the island will recover in the next few years.
Q: As one of the first single owner local investors to possess a milk powder processing plant, what is your view of the dairy market today?
A: The consumption of dairy products has increased substantially since the 1970s, prior to which domestic sources of milk provided nearly 80 percent of Sri Lanka’s requirements.
Given the rising number of cases of malnutrition – especially among preschoolers, younger children and pregnant mothers – milk production is an often overlooked benefactor in the context of improving nutrition levels in the country.
Having survived thousands of years, the dairy sector is a source of extensive employment opportunities since milk production plays an important role in alleviating nutritional poverty.
In that context, given the necessity and demand, it has the potential to contribute significantly to Sri Lanka’s economic development – if it receives due recognition.
Q: What is the state of play in regard to domestic milk production in Sri Lanka?
A: At present, Sri Lanka has over 15 dairy production companies. When you’re at the dairy section in a supermarket today, you’ll see that the shelves are filled with liquid milk, milk powder, yogurt, butter and cheese that have been produced locally.
Due to a lack of awareness however, consumers still prefer to buy imported brands rather than local products.
Locally produced or manufactured goods stimulate the economy and help reduce environmental pollution. They also bring communities together and offer people opportunities to make a difference.
Even though locally produced food may not last for years, like imported food items that are packed with chemicals and preservatives do, they’re healthier and taste better.
The dairy sector is capable of meeting local demand and simply needs the backing of the government, as well as a willingness among consumers to purchase goods produced in Sri Lanka rather than buy imported items.
Q: Sri Lanka is on a mission to be self-sufficient in liquid milk and aims to meet most of the national demand by 2024. What’s your assessment of this initiative?
A: While commendable, it is my belief that the country has already attained self-sufficiency in this respect. Why must we import even an ounce of milk when local producers can supply more than enough for the country?
It’s unfortunate and ill-advised that the country continues to spend foreign exchange on milk imports to subsidise the dairy farmers of New Zealand! Under prevailing economic conditions in the country, I suggest we take a long and hard look at our dairy sector, as well as the plight of local farmers.
Our ancient kingdoms were self-sufficient in all aspects – including milk production – even without today’s infrastructure and technological capabilities. So why can’t we achieve self-sufficiency once again?
Q: How do you view the need to engage with and invest in doing business beyond Sri Lanka’s borders in today’s context?
A: We live in a global marketplace – and engaging in international trade is a necessity. But a country must import only when it doesn’t have the resources or capacity to satisfy its needs and wants.
Dwindling foreign exchange reserves recently spiralled into a crisis where we were barely managing to settle our import bills.
In a situation such as this, our nation should reconsider buying wheat, sugar and milk powder from other countries, and divert those funds towards empowering local producers. Consequently, by developing and exploiting the island’s scarce domestic resources, we can produce a surplus that can be exported. That would be a win-win situation.
Q: And last but not least, what is the future you envision for Sri Lanka?
A: One day, people will realise that they can’t always sit back and blame the world for their lack of willingness or motivation to work towards making a name for themselves.
Many Sri Lankans – especially millennials and gen Z – are under the illusion that the only option they have right now is to emigrate.
It’s not the landmass that constitutes a country; rather, it’s the people living in it. The future I envision for Sri Lanka is a land with dynamic, innovative and driven citizens who will ensure that they contribute towards making it the best nation in the world in all respects.