VEGA recognizing King Ice and the BIZ+ Team in Sri Lanka

This is a pretty neat coincidence.  In a recent blog post, I talked about visiting an ice manufacturer in Trinco  and we discovered today it’s story has been chosen to be featured by VEGA Innovation as making an example of making a difference in people’s lives.  Check out the video (2 mins).

Kudos to the BIZ+ team here in Sri Lanka for being instrumental in the set up of this ice factory, and helping making it the success it is today!

Message from VEGA (Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance)

This video tells the powerful story of extraordinary impact being made by skilled volunteers in Sri Lanka after the devastating war that derailed the economy. Our goal is to raise awareness of how skilled volunteers help combat global poverty and promote prosperity for disadvantaged communities around the world.

Working together with VEGA Member Land O’Lakes International Development and local partner King Ice Manufacturers, we’re helping local fishermen grow their businesses and support their families.

For more stories like this one, explore

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What ever happened to microfinance?

I am reproducing this from the BRAC Blog – an article explaining how microfinance may not be as ‘sexy’ as it used to be, but it still plays an important role not only in providing microloans for improving an household’s income, but also provides for example emergency loans for things like unplanned medical treatments, fixing roofs, loans for safe migration etc.  A more holistic approach to supporting the financially challenged.

I liked the words of BRAC’s Founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed who said “poverty is “not just poverty of money or income” but also “a poverty self-esteem, hope, opportunity and freedom.”

The article begins here

Photo credit BRAC

Photo credit BRAC

You’d be forgiven for thinking microfinance has gone wildly out of fashion. The “development caravan”—defined as the wagon train of poverty interventions that excite donors—has pulled away from micro-lending, drawn to more powerful things like BRAC-style graduation programmes (which aim to “graduate” people from extreme poverty into a sustainable livelihood) and bKash-like mobile money, according to recent coverage in The Economist.

But as the same article points out, microfinance is actually booming. The number of borrowers grew 16 per cent worldwide in 2015 compared to the previous year. This is despite last year’s release of a set of randomised studies conducted in six countries showing only “modest, but not transformative, improvement in the lives of borrowers.” (These results, as we wrote when they came out, are not actually all that surprising.)

Despite the boom, The Economist laments that microfinance has become rather boring—or, at the very least, too inflexible. The average microloan is a “vanilla product,” the magazine quotes Ratna Vishwanathan of MFIN, a self-regulating industry body in India, as saying. In other words, most loans are of a fixed amount, have a set repayment period, with zero frills and hardly any flexibility. To be more effective, The Economist argues, microlenders need to be looser in their collection schedules. Small entrepreneurs need loans that can be repaid not when the lender dictates, but when their businesses actually start making money. It cites One Acre Fund as a successful model in sub-Saharan Africa.

This all sounds good so far. One Acre Fund combines credit with other services, such as access to seeds and fertilizer, training for farmers, help in bringing their goods to market, and flexibility in repayment—a successful and exciting formula. One could even imagine layering this on top of a graduation programme to reach the poorest segment of the population: Once participants get the one-time boost they need to lift themselves from the mire of extreme poverty, they could avail of these more market-oriented services to continue climbing the economic ladder.

But we do feel the need to push back on what seems to be The Economist’s underlying premise—that somehow microfinance is stuck in the doldrums or otherwise ineffective, because it raises people’s incomes only modestly.

A recalibration of the expectations of microfinance is long overdue. A micro-borrower might take a loan to pay school fees up front, cover emergency healthcare costs, or repair a leaky roof. These may not have a “transformative” effect, and they may not even have any effect on income at all. Yet each is likely to raise the overall wellbeing of a borrower, even if only modestly.

It’s a shame we’re still stuck on income as the only indicator of poverty. It isn’t. In the words of BRAC’s founder, poverty is “not just poverty of money or income” but also “a poverty self-esteem, hope, opportunity and freedom.” And indeed, sometimes poverty is a leaky roof.

In that vein, microfinance has in fact seen plenty of innovation over the past decade. In sub-Saharan Africa, loan products for adolescent girls—offered in a club setting, where the girls receive peer support, health awareness and skills training—have had a huge impact on things like teen pregnancy rates. We’ve experimented with loans tailored for tenant and smallholder farmers in Bangladesh and Tanzania, including flexible repayment periods and group loans. In Sierra Leone, there are loans specifically for drivers of “okadas,” or motorcycle taxis; many of them are former child soldiers, and all were hit badly during the Ebola outbreak.

The list goes on. Medical treatment loans are designed specifically for families enduring a sudden health shock—an illness needing immediate treatment, for instance. The repayment rate on these loans is 99%. There are even safe migration loans, tailor-made for people seeking jobs abroad—say, a Bangladeshi worker keen on making money in Dubai, so he can send some back home to support his family. This includes a service to check the validity of workers’ contract and travel documents to make sure they don’t fall victim to exploitative recruiters and employers.

All of the above happen to be BRAC products, but it’s not like we’re the only ones innovating. One Acre, BRAC, and four others in the Propagate coalition are looking for better ways to use microfinance to help smallholder farmers specifically, for example. 

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that those eye-catching interventions mentioned earlier—graduation programmes and mobile money—are both, in fact, part of the microfinance universe. The original graduation programme, BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra Poor, already integrates microcredit for about 70 per cent of its participants. They receive their assets—cows, goats, chickens, or goods for small trade—not as straight-out grants but as ‘soft loans,’ which they must repay over the course of two years. This in itself is a microfinance innovation, one that’s reached about 1.2 million households already.

As Shameran Abed, the director of BRAC’s microfinance programme, writes in the Center for Financial Inclusion’s blog, the graduation approach probably makes the strongest case so far for why financial services must be part of the solution to extreme poverty.

As for mobile money (the subject of a companion Economist piece), the cost of micro-borrowing is likely to fall further thanks to mobile technology. It’s no coincidence that Bangladesh’s bKash, which recently surpassed Kenya’s M-Pesa as the world’s largest mobile money provider as ranked by number of customers (now more than 24 million), is a service of BRAC Bank, which itself is owned by one of the world’s largest microlenders. In the future, a bKash algorithm could determine, based on usage patterns, if a user is a good enough credit risk. This would allow her to borrow a small amount of money to repair her leaky roof—or for whatever reason she deems fit.

Scott MacMillan is a senior writer and communications specialist at BRAC USA.

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Trinco – a happening place

I am slowly getting to grips with the array and sheer number of businesses the VEGA/BIZ+ project work with, a few of whom we visited last week.

I arrived in Sri Lanka just in time for fiscal year end and the staff meeting that goes along with that.  For the first time, the staff meeting was held outside of Colombo in a place called Trincomalee (Trinco for short).  It’s about 250km from the capital and is the administrative headquarters as well as primary port & resort city in the Eastern Province.  Although the roads are paved all the way, it’s narrow in parts and under construction in others which means it takes about 5-7 hours to get there, depending on traffic.  We left Colombo at the ungodly hour of 4.30am so we could lunch with our colleagues from Jaffna and Battiicaloa at Amaranthe Bay – the resort we were all staying at.

Here’s an 8-second video of how we kept ourselves amused on the bus🙂

The journey only took 5 hours so we had a bit of time to visit one of the project’s grantees before checking in.  An ice-making factory!

Now, I had never seen ice making at a commercial level ever, so I was interested to see the process, given with humidity, the daily temperatures can get up to 40C.

Picture giant popsicle-like forms filled with fresh cooled water that are then immersed in salted water in large vats.  The fresh water freezes and before the salted water has a chance to freeze, the 50kg ‘popsicles’ are removed form the forms and stored in a cold room (which was bliss to stand in by the way).  The ice is used by fishermen, wholesalers and supermarkets – either in the 50kg blocks to keep the catch fresh on deep-sea fishing boats or distribution trucks, or in shredded form when selling to the consumer.

This plant is being extended (doubling it’s size), there is that much business to be had.  The project also purchased a refrigerated truck to allow ice to be delivered further than the immediate surrounding area.  This plant has met the targets of providing local employment and is viewed as a good example of a successful partnership.

Another successful partnership is that of Amaranthe Bay resort.  It was well funded by the owners but they needed resort-building expertise and other technical support which the project was able to provide.  Amaranthe Bay opened it’s doors 2 years ago and has been consistently booked out with a nice mix of foreigners as well as Sri Lankans on vacation.  I can see why!  It was luxurious to be a guest there:  my suite was to die for right by the pool with in-room jacuzzi (actually every room has one), the service was excellent, food delicious and location was just stunning.  This video (2mins duration) does a better job at showing how beautiful a place it is, than I could capture with my camera.

The husband of a colleague is 1 of  17 pilots who safely bring the ships into Colombo’s harbour, and through his contacts, we got to sail through security and visit Trinco’s harbour – a large natural harbour that many a sea battle has been fought to gain control of it.  It’s unique in that the harbour has many ‘tentacles’ which allow for many ships to come longside many docks dedicated by cargo.  We visited the cement dock.  Pretty neat to see it up close and personal.

Cement is being offloaded here.

Cement is being offloaded here.

There was a lot of work done too – I promise!  2015-2016 in review plus a look at each of the grantees, how they are doing and what is left to be done before the project closes next summer.

We had an outing to Pigeon Island for a bit of snorkeling among it’s renowned coral reefs.  This is your kind of place Maeve!

Many of the team did not swim so were brave souls going snorkeling!

Many of the team did not swim so were brave souls going snorkeling!

The sunrises are just gorgeous, I got up at 5am both mornings and headed down to the beach to see the dawning of the day.  And take a paddle in the Indian Ocean.

And we had a party on our last evening there ….. boated out to a little island in the middle of the Pillaikulam Aru river where the chefs cooked on BBQs and we danced our hearts out to Tamil tunes.  Great fun!

I know, more postings about food, but I cannot help it – the food is so delicious here!

I’m off up north to Jaffna next week, stay tuned for my thoughts on my visit here.  In the meantime, have a good week!

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Getting stuck in

I’ve already been put to work which is great, nothing like getting stuck in.

The first of many business partners I will be working with is a social enterprise spawned by a young and energetic Sri Lankan who was awarded the Stanford Social Innovation Fellowship in the late 2000s.  The award provided much needed seed capital to get his business off the ground and since then, has shown steady growth with the help of a young and dedicated team of professionals.

The business produces and distributes a range of heirloom rice indigenous to Sri Lanka for both the domestic and export markets.  The seed for a variety of rice is provided by the company and is grown by smallholder farmers struggling to make a living in these post-conflict times.  The complete crop is bought by this company who then mill and package the rice, and distribute to individuals, supermarkets and institutional customers (schools, workplace canteens etc).  Any profits made from this endeavour are for the benefit of farmers, with a portion of the funds held back to operate and grow the company.

I must admit to being rather impressed with this young group of professionals, they are smart, very sharp and hugely dedicated to making this work.  They could be off earning far larger sums of money in the corporate world, but instead they have chosen to use their skills, education and experience for the greater good.  Admirable for sure.

To be honest, this young team of educated guys know exactly what they need to do, I think I can help them with putting a little discipline around their planning process and implementation of the many initiatives they have on their plate.  Interesting times (for me) ahead.

The team are based in Colombo but the rice is grown and milled in the North, and packaged further south of Colombo.  Supporting this young team will require a little travel.    Suits me!

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Settling in

I’ve been treated so well by the team since I arrived, I am so fortunate.  Nothing is a problem and everything is attended to.

Tuesday morning the team had a potluck breakfast, my oh my, the food was just delicious!  Gayathri from the office has already given me some recipes and once I get the spices, I will give the recipes a shot.  I’m dying to get cooking!

Maheshie (the other newly-arrived volunteer from the US) and I moved into the rather swanky apartment within walking distance from the office.  It’s got everything one could wish for including a fully kitted kitchen with oven (bliss!) as well as a washing machine (greater bliss!).  On the 6th floor there is a fully equipped gym & weights room, two swimming pools with sun loungers, a BBQ area and a few areas to gather small groups to sit.  I can’t think of anything else I need.  There’s also two grocery stores close by, as well as an ATM that takes my bank’s debit card.  If I were pushed to find one fault, it would be the electrical sockets – they take UK plugs (leftover from colonial days??) so fortunately I have one changeable adapter that I have now switched to UK instead of Asia, and our North American devices are charging up a storm.

Moira – can you spot your well-traveled tea-towel?!

Maheshie and I have discovered we are pretty similar with how we live, the food we like and we share many interests.  I’m fortunate to have such a great roommate for the short time I will be in Colombo!  Originally born in Sri Lanka, Maheshie’s parents emigrated to the US when she was just one years old.  She has been back and forth many times since to visit her extended family here, and I have already benefitted with a supply of spices and homecooked food – yum!  Maheshie is currently on a work-sponsored volunteer sabbatical from the consulting firm she works with in New York.  Maheshie will be based fulltime in Colombo until she returns home at the end of December 2016.  As for me, my base has not yet been finalized, that will depend on who I will end up working with and where they are located.

During the week, I spotted an interesting event that Maheshie and I ended up going to on Thursday night.  Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries are the first Sri Lankans to scale Everest and they were giving a presentation on their experience.  It was a really inspiring evening!  I never tire of hearing stories from those who climb big mountains.


They began their preparation some years ago, having climbed Kilimanjaro as well as Island Peak in Nepal’s Himalayas (the same little mountain I along with Peter & Connery Noble climbed in 2011 btw)– as part of their altitude and cold-weather training.  They managed to get enough sponsorship plus endorsement from the Sri Lankan government before departing for Nepal.  They had great footage and photos, and memorable stories of their time on the mountain.

Johann made it to 8400m – some 450m from the summit and had to make the very difficult decision to turn around or die trying to continue on. Very courageous.  Jayanthi summited on May 21st, 2016 and proudly flew the Sri Lankan flag from the top of the world … and had to change batteries in her camera on the summit to record the event!  At a mere 6,100m, I struggled with untying my boot laces, so I can hardly imagine what it took for her to change her camera batteries on top of the world!

It was a wonderful evening hearing the story of how two friends – a gender equality activist and a hairdresser, who had never climbed a big mountain before, had a dream.  A dream to climb Everest for their country.  Many thought they would never do it, others thought they were plain crazy.  But they planned and persevered and realised their dream.  A lesson for this all.  Really inspiring.  And to top it all, Johan (the hairdresser of the two) came over to compliment my haircut!

It’s been a socially quiet weekend which suited me fine, Maheshie spent the weekend with one of her aunts.  I’m a little under the weather with a chesty cough (how did I get that?!)  so I’ve taken the time to lay low, enjoy the apartment and stock the pantry.

It’s USAID fiscal year end which means a staff retreat in Trincomalee on the east coast. Known for its safe deep harbour, this port town is also famous for its beautiful beaches and Tamil culture.   Tomorrow morning we leave Colombo at the insane time of 4.30am so as to avoid the main heat of the day in our 7-hour ride by private bus, arriving by lunch-time.  I’m sure there will be much to tell upon our return late Wednesday night – stay tuned!

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Ayubowan / vanakkam from Colombo

My flight arrived early to Colombo yesterday at about 3pm.


Stepping off the plane, a hit of humid, warm sea air made me smile.  Oh the smell of the ocean!  How I missed it.

Indian Ocean view from the hotel's roof top )4 stories only)

Indian Ocean view from the hotel’s roof top (4 stories only)

Regretfully there was no champagne reception or upgrade to business class for me on this inaugural flight.  All that hair straightening was for naught.  I was overshadowed (how could that possibly happen?!) by the presence of recently appointed Sri Lankan Ambassador to Nepal, Ms. WS Perera, as well as the Secretary General, Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sri Lanka, Ajith D Perera on the flight.  Check out the short article in The Himalayan newspaper.

There was a bit of fanfare when checking in and my photo was taken under a festoon of blue and white balloons with a keepsake tote bag in memory of the occasion.  It clearly did not make the cut for the article.  And the 25 or so passengers shared in the celebratory cake for our dessert (after a rather delicious fish curry for lunch I might add).

Chief of Party Michael Parr picked me up and the airport and, because he had discovered during our recent calls and emails, I was as much of a fiend for coffee as he was, we went for a ‘good’ coffee (none of that Nescafe out of a jar for me!) before landing at the hotel.  A very good start.

The hotel is across from the ocean,  a nice warm breeze with waves crashing in the salty air.  Electricity 24/7, air conditioning everywhere, altogether very luxurious as compared to day to day life in Nepal.  I’ll be staying at the hotel for the next 5 days, and we will figure it out from there.

The hotel's infinity pool. I'll be taking a dip in that later.

The hotel’s infinity pool. I’ll be taking a dip in that later.

Tharanga is a senior manager with Land O’Lakes and she and her husband kindly took me for dinner.  What a feast!  I let them order a traditional Sri Lankan meal and my goodness, it was just delicious!  Grace – you just have to come visit if only for the food!  I’ll have to learn these recipes while I am here.  Apparently hoppers are a little finicky to make but they can bought easily and cheaply at food stalls.

Vadairasam - a thin spicy soup with tamarind base to start

Vadairasam – a thin spicy soup with tamarind base to start

We washed all this down with a G&T.  What more could one ask for?

Apparently there was a shortage of local beer for a few months here in Sri Lanka late May as a result of flood damage at Colombo’s Lion Brewery.  Beer had to be imported which of course increased the price.  But it seems things are getting back to normal now ….. much to the relief of the locals.  It was clearly a traumatic experience, I was told about it within hours of landing by three separate parties!

I am not 24 hours here as yet and things are off to a great start.  My colleagues are down to earth, smart, worldly and have ‘can do’ attitudes about them – my kind of people.

Ayubowan / Poyvituvarukiren for now!

(Sinhalese / Tamil)
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Happy Dashain 2073

A very Happy Dashain to my Nepali friends the world over!



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