Monday, October 27, 2008

Village innuendo Sinhala style

When I embarked on this venture to go into two villages in the Polonnaruwa district to build a life for myself, I was very naive as to the social fabric of a village having never lived in one. I have been confronted by many surprises that appear normal for those living there.

One village Raja Ela in Hingurakgoda, where my agricultural land is, was a thick forest a hundred years ago, inhabited by elephants. It was subsequently cleared and colonists from all over the country were settled, whose grand children now live in plots of land as small as 20 perches to a maximum of 5 acres. Excluding the paddy land that is primarily intact, all the other land given for agricultural use is barely cultivated, except for some coconut areas.

The second village Ratmale, in Minneriya, is a Purana Gama, that existed prior to colonization schemes, where 80% of inhabitants claim kinship. I intend to live there once my small one roomed home is finished, which I hope to share with visitors to the area curious to see a fast disappearing way of life. This village, which is only 4km from the Kaudulla National Park entrance, consists of farmers who are increasingly looking for other income.

Due to my necessity to work 7 days a week to earn a living to develop these properties, I have had to resort to employing people to take care of and farm and develop the properties. The first lesson I learnt is not to use local people to take care of the land, as they are most unreliable, working their own properties, while drawing a wage from me, and walking away with produce from my land taking advantage of my inability to oversea their work. Worse, the daily wage expected is Rs600/-, which is the standard wage in the area for casual labor. This is high where an agricultural return is difficult to earn from such wages.

I have had to get staff from outside the area and place them on the property and provide them with accommodation and food where I pay them Rs400/- which they can bank at the end of the month if they don’t go back to their villages for various family functions which invariably involve spending it.

The issue is that the neighbors are not familiar with a paid laborer occupying the land, as the people are owner-occupiers who don’t develop their properties owing to the high cost of labor and live a subsistence life. So when they know what my staff are being paid, are constantly trying to get them to leave saying they should get at least the daily 600/- In actual fact, they don’t like to see people as paid labor living a better lifestyle than them, as few earn that kind of money, except for a day or two here and there, but due to the fact they own some property are not strapped with the urban dwellers costs. The locals are trying to get me to put them in charge, while encouraging my staff to leave by various sorts of innuendo, making them feel uncomfortable in some way.

I have to be firm and clear by my stance of not caving in to a higher wage, or of employing the locals, as both would surely lead to my not being able to carry out this project. I am already a hostage to a lazy workforce in the farm who I am saddled with, and have told to leave, but their living conditions to them seem too good even though their pay is not high, and alternatives are not as attractive.

All this explanation leads to one conclusion, namely that to make paid labor viable, be they with homes and food provided or just casual day labor coming from outside, we cannot operate a small enterprise with minimal supervision. It has to be a larger organization with field officers in the time-honored practice used by the larger plantation companies. There is no discipline and integrity in these people to be left to their own devices because as experience has shown me, no amount of targets, incentive plans, work schedules can motivate and obtain productivity from unskilled labor if they are unsupervised.

On the other hand self-employed small farmers can be productive if they are motivated. Here money is definitely a motivator. The introduction of efficient and productive farming practices is accepted. When it comes to them needing paid labor other than their family members to help out, they shy away from it in most part due to their conviction that it is just not cost effective, and accordingly do not expand their farms because of this limitation. This automatically leads to the inevitable conclusion, that to expand, mechanization on a grand scale is required to give the productive farmers the ability to cultivate larger extents without having to rely on paid labor, who are generally very unproductive in the agricultural sector.

This leads to the conclusion of the initial subject, where people do not like to upset the status quo and are frightened of change even if it is to the good, as they are concerned about their place in the new order of things, especially if the outsider outdoes them in making a hitherto unprofitable place profitable.

My position in the village

Following on from my views on how the village view my employees and their effort at trying to get a local to be my man on the spot, my place in the scheme of things is still a little unnerving to them, as I have still not permanently settled there. They always see me arrive in the dead of night and then leaving with a full load of produce days later, implying I am taking it to Colombo, and so take me for a person from there.

They therefore automatically assume that I am a man of means, reinforced by my having employees. I am therefore fair game when it comes to borrowing requests, and I often get a line of people wanting to borrow from me, at very high interest rates. They don’t believe me when I say I don’t have any to lend them, and in some instances get quite annoyed especially when they get wind that I have lent to some kith or kin of theirs.

I walk a tightrope in trying not to upset my neighbors, when I refuse some and grant others. They all are related to one another by blood or marriage, so people know what everyone is about even though there are disputes amongst them, namely of relatives falling out over property issues. The fact that they live next to each other does not help.

Each one comes to tell tales to me about the other, some true and others false and tying to work out who is trustworthy is very difficult. It is not easy to be one of them, as much as I would like, but when I come across their very bad habits, I sometimes prefer to keep to myself concentrating just on the work on hand, and minimizing my interaction to that which is necessary. There is one point that stands out, namely jealousy if they perceive I am particularly friendly with one, they try to break that friendship.

I simply want honest and dependable persons and those who can give me advice about the area and farming techniques. I would like to get to know my neighbors in an unthreatening and neighborly way. I find it is very difficult to do this. There always appears to be a hidden agenda.

The full extent of the welcome, will not be apparent for a while, but I see them treating me in ways that would benefit them. That is human nature but making assumptions about me that are untrue which I cannot refute because they do not believe is the one area that distances me from being able to be more sociable with them.

Monday, October 20, 2008

One of rural life’s real challenges

The urban dwellers be they in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, look at my life with starry lenses wishing they could enjoy these experiences. In rural farming I have problems with bats, squirrels, peacocks, monkeys and flocks of parrots and other birds. Reality is not as romantic as it seems, especially in the homes and their perimeter. My home is invaded by polecats who run around the ceiling causing a lot of noise and damage. They find a way in no matter what I do. Swallows come into the house at night and always place their calling card at the same spot. Cats that come in through the windows to steal anything they can get their paws on. The ever-present rats that roam the fields find the most unlikely places; to make a safe home inside a sofa.

Just this week, even the dog that is not a pet but lives around, got into the house and killed a hen that was in a box helping to hatch some eggs so I can increase my number of ‘gam kukulu’ or village fowl. Outside even the free-range fowl have to be protected from all sorts of predators, such as dogs even during the day, though they are brought into their coop for the night.

Houses are constructed with open orifices meant to circulate fresh air but which bring in primarily rats, mice, swallows and bats into the homes. I am surprised that meshes like those used in other countries are not used to prevent all sorts or insects and animals to get into the homes. I have had my clothes eaten by rats, as well as electrical wiring, and even phone chargers. I actually like the geckos that eat the insects and are not too much of a nuisance. Interestingly I rarely see spiders in the house, though the ones I occasionally come across are very big.

Of all the creatures rats are the most harmful, and in a rural setting, there is no possibility of getting rid of them. All one can do is prevent them getting into the home. Rats gnaw at coconuts on the trees, and king coconuts even when left overnight for sale. Killing rats is no solution as they are always replaced, and nothing seems to be a permanent deterrent, even a cat, which I resorted to. I have had to deal with it daily, when I discover a new surprise that I have lost. They come down from the trees onto the roof and into the house and have surprising entry and exit points. Only steel is something they cannot gnaw, and I don’t have steel cabinets to put everything into.

This is something I had no idea would be a major source of irritation when I embarked on this journey, so others be warned it is serious stuff.

Hotels, Service and common sense

I was recently invited for both lunch and dinner to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, a historic hotel that celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. Both meals were had on the terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.

I ordered a fresh Mango Juice, as Mango is now in season, the price Rs400 before the service and taxes totaling Rs500(US$5). I was extremely disappointed with it. It was very watery and tasteless. The only positive was that no sugar was added, but there is no point if that is done to add so much water so the concentration of Mango is not even one to one. The chef must use good tasty mangos for the juice, and all the battered parts of the mango can be cut out so it is not essential to use a perfect mango for juicing either.

In Sri Lanka there is no point in returning the juice to the kitchen as being tasteless as all the chef would do is add sugar and send it back. It is the concentrate that should be served and if they do not have it they should politely say so, rather than add water to increase the servings.

With this lesson learned not to order fresh juices from a Luxury Hotel, I ordered during evening drinks a Ginger Beer (EGB as it is colloquially known) as one could not go wrong with it. It was served un-iced or barely iced. If one knows about Ginger Beer it needs to be served extremely chilled to enjoy this drink to the fullest. So when I ordered the next bottle, I said please do not serve if the bottle is not well chilled, as it was not the last drink I had. Hey presto it was brought in the same state as before, but with a glass full of ice cubes right up to the top. Immediately on impact with the Ginger Beer, the ice cubes melted, leaving a tasteless watered down drink.

I don’t know who is at fault, but it should lie squarely with the hotel management for not training the staff on the nuances of their drinks, and the dos and don’ts of serving refreshments. Sri Lanka that always prides itself on service, always falls down on its service which surprisingly or not is the weakest area of the hospitality industry. One has to anticipate the problems and cater to them. It is possible that all the good staff leave for better jobs in the Middle East and one is left with the not so good. It is still no excuse when 6star prices are charged to give one star service.

I did not bother complaining. A simple matter like this is not understood, despite it being serious, as the standard they seem to apply is very low.

Red Rice and White Rice

I realized that I had not written about this observation about my Rice sales to Colombo homes. I deliver the rice I grow to homes in Colombo, and the reader would find it interesting to note that, while the family of the home eat red rice, the staff cook and eat white rice. I believe the red rice is more nutritious, So why do the staff prefer to eat white rice, when we would normally have thought they would prefer to eat red.

This was the surprising thing even in Polonnaruwa, where all my neighbors only eat white rice, usually parboiled as it is more filling too. They seem pretty insistent on eating only the white parboiled rice, where as I am more flexible, eating whatever rice that is put in front of me. The standard answer to the question is “apita kanna baha” or we cant eat it as we are not used to it. Only when the doctor orders in the case of parboiled red nadu for diabetics do they make a special effort at eating the more nutritious variety.

There is an organization that is marketing our old traditional varieties of rice. They maintain the rice is grown without the use of Pesticides or chemical fertilizers, This rice is milled only to remove the paddy husk, This rice is rich in vitamins, and different varieties are recommended for people with different medical conditions. However this organization which is assisting by marketing these types of rice grown by small farmers, is finding it extremely difficult to sell their produce. If this effort has proved futile with substantial NGO funds, what hope would I have to do the same.

Like in all things relating to food items, it is an acquired taste, and from talking to people it appears that the direction in Sri Lanka is to eat less and less nutritious rice, and possibly other foods, but the subject here is rice. Even the red rice I sell, I have to polish it to a degree, to reduce the redness so I sell as Rosa Kekulu Samba and not Rathu Kekulu Samba. Here again it is that the dark red is too heavy. Of course the rice polish, which is the best part of the rice seed is discarded further the lighter one wants it. This rice polish is known and rice bran (vee kudu) which I purchase to feed my cattle and in the larger scale is used as primary input in manufacturing chicken feed. So animals get a better diet in this sense than we humans.

It is important that better education on the health benefits of varieties of rice are taught to school children who can then make informed choices, along with parents, about the type of rice they should eat and get used to eating.

Friday, October 3, 2008

the dream re-visited

It is useful from time to time to take stock of where one has come from and where one is headed. In that vein I will summarize below in five blog entries a brief review of what I have done and what my future expectations are.

It is almost four years now since I started this new lifestyle, with a minimum of capital all of which has long been spent, and now I have to generate my own cash flow within the business if I am to grow to the next level.

My ultimate goal in the not too distant future is to live permanently in the Polonnaruwa District and run an agri business cum ecologically neutral tourist enterprise. I believe within my scale I have to do both in tandem for each to survive as a viable business. I would like to manage my produce delivery business in Colombo and my shop in the farm, which means I need a reliable workforce capable of following instructions remotely.

While I was aware that there would be immense risks, there were two risks, the gravity of which has taken me completely by surprise. The first and most important being the unreliability of the workforce no matter what time of incentive scheme you set up for them, where often the instructions carried out are the exact opposite of what was very lucidly explained. The other surprising area is the damage done to my agricultural produce by birds and animal, while pests I can accept, the former I cannot. From peacocks, to rock squirrels, monkeys to rats , pole cats to cattle all have contributed to a considerable loss in agricultural production.

The main benefit has been the unexpected life style full of learning about new methods people adopt to cope with various of life’s difficulties and the resolution to carry on in the face of great adversity when sometimes only hopelessness is all one sees ahead of one. The climate has been kind in that living much of the time without electricity, has not meant sleepless nights for lack of fans, but on the contrary nights of more sound sleep out in the open in Polonnaruwa much to my amazement.

The blog has been my outlet and mouthpiece in the face of a lot of isolation from the outside world due to the lifestyle I currently lead, which allows me little access to what is happening in the world or with those who I know in Colombo and overseas. I am very appreciative of the encouragement from blog readers to help me through this period of exploration.

the farm in Godagama, Meegoda

This ten-acre property 28km from Colombo is where I originally came to when I returned to the country. It was clear from the outset, that it was in a negative cash flow situation with the dairy contributing the significant portion to the loss, primarily because we spent too much time and energy feeding the animals for very little milk revenue.

I had to make the existing house habitable and livable, by cosmetic changes, of upgrading the electrical system, painting the place and upgrading some of the homes on the property along with some infrastructure. The workforce that I inherited sadly is probably the worst this country can provide, with productivity that would not even pay the wages.

I was in a terrible dilemma, as I could not bankroll a permanent loss, and had to take calculated steps to increase revenue. The first was to rapidly try and find markets for King Coconuts all over Colombo and fill shortages by buying the nuts from neighboring properties. This was very successful but in 2008 adverse weather conditions and severe problems with the reliability of the tree climber who doubled his charges resulted in losing money on this previously profitable business. I hope I can return to a state of profitability next year, but a lot sadly depends on the tree climber’s performance.

The other products, Coconuts and bananas are hardly holding their own, with bananas badly affected by a family of monkeys that has taken residence on the farm ruining everything. We are still struggling to get enough papaya trees to cope with the demand, and have been singularly unsuccessful in this regard. Actually the unreliability of the workforce to carry out orders has been the main contributor to the lack of produce in these three departments.

I have no marketing problem for anything that is grown on this property, it is just the production of good quality produce that has been sorely missing. I have attempted to start a line of fresh leaves which I feel has a great demand but this too is labor intensive, as the weeding has to be done by hand as not pesticides are used and we just don’t have hardworking and reliable workforce for that. The sky is leterally the limit on what I can sell, like the market for flowers like anthuriams and orchids is unsatisfied along with houseplants, all of which grows well in this property, but until I personally poison their moonshine and say good bye to all those who have tested me I am not going to get into a state of near break even in this property.

the kade

The shop, “Kirimetta Handiya” which I constructed and opened at the entrance to the farm in Godagama, on April 1st 2006 is the best use I had made of a small inheritance left me by my mother. I am able to sell everything I produce, both in Polonnaruwa and Godagama as well as produce I am able to purchase from my neighbors, and sell at retail prices. This has stemmed the losses from the farm, by bank rolling the expenses of the farm. While it takes management time to purchase produce etc. I am now toying with the idea of renting it out so I can ensure a market for my produce, but also not worry about the running costs, and pilfering from the shop, as well as the unexpectedly large rodent spoilage losses.

The design is eye catching and my initial plans were big, but here again cash flow and unreliability of staff played its part, and no one worked on the shop with as much diligence as I did when I was running it single handed when the revenue was at its highest. So the extrapolations made there from were not achieved. I still would like to open it in the evening as a café, but that idea will only come into fruition when I can find someone to run that side of the operation as the location and the setting is ideal for a very novel place.

The kade has wood panels, doors and windows, made from the very rare margosa or khomba wood, as are the 4 tables and 8 benches, which can be used to seat over 24 people at a sitting. So some of the infrastructure is in place for the restaurant. The location under the Bo tree with no house or building view anywhere near the place lends itself to an idyllic setting.

My original intention to stock it with products of Sri Lanka owned companies was stifled firstly, by the heads of those companies not subscribing to my theory and giving me a break on prices for their produce in return for exclusivity, which is a common idea in the west. They have a lot to learn about competitive business practices as they are still being trounced by the multinationals, and no wonder with that attitude! Secondly, the superb marketing undertaken by the multinationals due to their greater resource base, has enable them to loss lead and capture market share, and sometime transfer price across countries that are detrimental to local businesses in being able to compete in a level playing field.

This long- term and worthwhile investment will cost twice as much if constructed today, and I am therefore happy with it on all fronts.

Kumbuk Thuduwa the agricultural property

I purchased this property within a month of seeing it in July 2006, spending US$6.500 to buy, and US$3.500 to build my cabin, well and water tank. so that it is a complete property, where one need never leave, as it has everything one would want in one place. With 3 acres of paddy land, and 2 acres of coconut and mango trees, I have completely transformed it in two years from an abandoned shrub, where the old trees were uncared for and the vegetation overgrown.

I have had a sufficient return on investment so that I could cover the cost of my travel to Polonnaruwa, which has doubled since I purchased it. I have had four paddy harvests so far, selling every grain of rice I have produced and more. I have plans, which can take its time to develop, as this is where I expect to run an agribusiness from in the future. I am blessed with a water source, namely the Minneriya Oya that runs alongside the property providing unlimited water, except that I have to pump it up.

Many of the stories in my blog arise from my living here in the middle of a village, and following the lives of my neighbors and commenting on the various social interactions arising from my intrusion into their space.

I have spent the past two years developing the poor soil conditions, fertilizing the coconut trees, planting fruit trees, coconut plants and a banana plantation. The 500+ papaya plants all contracted a virus and had to be destroyed with my demand for papaya still remaining unfulfilled.

I have brought three of my cattle here and hope to bring a further three animals to build up a small dairy herd to produce and sell milk in the neighborhood. I have also planted a third rice crop for the first time this month as an experiment to look at the pros and cons of this project.

Sudath the man I placed on this property from the farm has remained there and has got married and his wife is now expecting a child any moment. I still have not got electricity to the property, primarily due to the cost of getting the wires into the property.

I am happy to report that the value of the property has more than doubled in the past two years and I have never been more satisfied with a purchase than I have with this property, as I really love it. I welcome anyone to visit me.

Kumbuk Pokuna Lodge, Ratmale, Minneriya

See It is a building I broke ground on August 4th 2006, which for want of funds I have not finished. It has cost me US$12,000 to date, part of which is from borrowed funds. This is in addition to the property, an acre, which I purchased from a friend years earlier.

I intend it to be both my personal home, and when I get bookings, to rent it out on short lets, to then live in the Hingurakgoda, Kumbuk Thuduwa, which is a mere 15km or a Rs25 bus ride away on a direct bus route.

Much of the structure is now complete with the finishing touches and landscaping to be completed, it will be lit by generator for the time being until I am able to afford the power lines into the property.

It has been designed on the lines of the old National Park lodges of yesteryear and will appeal both to nostalgia and those seeking an alternative experience in the wild. Herds of wild elephants come for an evening dip at the opposite side of the tank that adjoins the property and it borders the Kaudulla National Park, the entrance of which is 5km from my property.

It sleeps 8 in 4 large double beds, and is rustic and basic, but with a charm of its own surrounded by waterholes that attract a fascinating array of bird and animal life, that one can just enjoy, like a natural history program, while relaxing in the verandah section.

I have put in a lot of effort in the past two years to get to where I have at such a low cost bearing in mind what I had to do, including the construction of a well with 25 tractor loads of rock covering a depth of nearly 30ft so the well will never run dry, even during the worst of droughts.

This property is an integral part of my plan, and whose occupants can be fed from fresh produce grown on the other property, which will also form part of the visiting environment to the area to contrast the agricultural and wildlife experience of the area.

I also currently purchase fruit and vegetables from my neighbors in the area, and also get an incredibly good bees honey, when the hives are harvested from the forest once a year in July. I expect to complete this project within 6 months and begin the landscaping as soon as the rains come.

my one and only vehicle, Tata diesel cab

I have had this vehicle, leased as new from the time I returned. It has served me during these years and just as I reach my 4th anniversary back in Sri Lanka, the last lease payment is coterminous with that. Nearing 125,000 km it is a shadow of its former self, creaking and noisy beyond imagination, requiring a major overhaul, including minor body repairs but also a good paint job to prevent corrosion.

It has hauled almost anything you can think of and I do not believe there is another vehicle like this in the country that has had this much use for such a versatile series of tasks. Just to name a few, the regular transporting of grass or hay for the cattle, regular deliveries of King Coconuts to customers in Colombo, transport of rice and food stuffs from Polonnaruwa, hauling timber, frames, and even roof tiles from my fathers home to Polonnaruwa, where the 90 year old tiles from India were taken once he decided to put a sheet roof replacing the leaking clay tiles.

I could not have carried on my business without this vehicle, and despite the high cost of maintenance and running, I believe it has been the best option available to me. I wish I had a vehicle to deliver foodstuffs that is both covered and refrigerated, for the future growth of my delivery business, but that will just have to wait for better times, when I can be assured of reliable employees to carry out this task as I already have an unsatisfied market.

The fifth estate of my business and a crucial one at that, allowing me to survive to tell the tale so far, has been my Monday home delivery business of about 40 different items. It is primarily my produce from both Godagama and Polonnaruwa, but also what I purchase from my neighbors and from other sources.

This makes Mondays the hardest day of my already busy schedule. At 5 am the produce has to be collected, picked and packed in weights for delivery. It is usually past 10am when I leave fully loaded to the gunnels. An extremely tiring day of delivery to friends and family ends around 7.30pm and it takes another 90 minutes during rush hour to return to the farm. I then have to unload any unsold items, and then repack for my trip to Polonnaruwa, with crates, water and items such as banana plants. I then leave after 10pm; the journey of 215km takes me four and half hours to get to Hingurakgoda. This late night journey is often alone, thanks to this workhorse Tata.