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Faces of Pro-Poor Growth: In Rural Sri Lanka, Groundbreaking Women Take the Lead in Agri-Tech

Job opportunities for young women in Ranna, Sri Lanka, are limited. Government jobs are in demand but scarce, forcing some to move to the capital, Colombo, to look for work in the private sector. Others join the flow of female migrant workers to areas which have garment factories mass-producing clothes for export. Most drop out of the labour force entirely, as evidenced by Sri Lanka’s disappointing labour force participation rate for women (35.9% in 2016 versus 75.1%IMG_6243 for men).

“Hardly any young women get a chance to work with new technology,” says Piumi Madhushika, a lab technician at the tissue culture laboratory operated by MDF partner Aruna Plant Nursery. For Piumi, this is one of the highlights of her work.

A plant nursery with many faces

Aruna is a multi-faceted operation: its main arm is a plant nursery, housing thousands of saplings of various fruit, vegetable and flower varieties, but the company also runs a successful restaurant-cum-nursery showcase. The latest addition to Aruna is a tissue culture laboratory, the result of owner Mr. Aruna Wijewickrema’s innovative business skills and the support of the Australian Government’s Market Development Facility.

While Mr. Aruna Wijewickrema is the face of the business, it is his wife, Ms. Kanthini Wimalasuriya, who occupies the prominent position for the company’s 50-odd women employees. Referred to as ‘Madam’ and ‘Sir’ by Piumi and her cohorts, the husband and wife team co-manages operations. With an extensive background in agriculture, Ms. Wimalasuriya has in-depth knowledge of the technical aspects; she oversees the nursery operation and is the go-to person for nursery-related queries. The mostly female workforce also comes to Ms. Wimalasuriya for advice on personal matters and they look up to her as a trusted mentor. Says Piumi,

“During the diploma, you only get knowledge from books. We didn’t have any practical experience. But Madam knows everything – from fertilizer to planting methods. She’s the one who guides everyone.”

Opening agri-tech to young women

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The technical elements of the lab are run entirely by a group of young women from the area – Piumi and six other technicians. Their initial training in the meticulous work of tissue culture was given by an expert who overlooked the setting-up of the lab. But the girls are now fully up to speed with the process and train new recruits themselves.

Residing in the neighbouring village of Hungama, Piumi brings a Diploma in Agriculture and a short stint at a government-run tissue culture research lab to the team. She started as a Field Supervisor at the nursery, but quickly moved up when work at the lab ramped up.

“Working on the field is nice. You spend a lot of time with the nendas [nursery workers]. But this is very different. Here, after all, there is some work I can call my own.”

Why agriculture needs innovation

MDF’s work with Aruna has been groundbreaking for this part of the country. This is the only commercially operated tissue culture laboratory in Southern Sri Lanka, addressing a long-standing problem faced by farmers in the area: the lack of healthy plant saplings. In the case of bananas, Sri Lanka’s most-exported fruit, disease is both a crop and sales killer. According to Piumi, “if you talk to banana farmers around here, they all want to cultivate, but they can’t find any good saplings to plant!”

Problems such as the Panama Disease, which affects the export-variety Cavendish bananas, devastate crops and leave farmers helpless. Moreover, despite demand, exporters struggle to find export-quality bananas in the market. This results in a demand-supply deadlock and an inability for small/medium-scale Sri Lankan farmers to compete in the global market. Tissue culture is a solution, as the method produces saplings that are sturdier than average and more disease-resilient. This has the potential to be a game-changer for both Sri Lanka’s farmers and its banana exports.

The bulk of Piumi’s earnings go towards her family, primarily her brother, who has a developmental disorder and attends a special school in the area. The siblings lost their father a few years ago, and the family now lives off the earnings from a small shop and Piumi’s salary.

Piumi’s main goal now is to get her degree in agriculture. Her work at the lab has inspired her to experiment with a tissue-culture orchid sapling. After perfecting it, she hopes to replicate it at the lab on a larger scale. Following the successful production of the first batch of banana saplings, Aruna plans to branch out into flowering plants, and Piumi looks forward to the challenge.

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