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Lankan post-tsunami resilience showcased in London

UNITED KINGDOM: Small to medium-scale entrepreneurs affected by the Boxing-Day tsunami have been telling a story of great resilience at the 'Serendib' trade exhibition being held at London's New Connaught Rooms from June 21 and 23.

Six businesses showcasing products ranging from silks to paintings and ceramics to fashion jewellery were at the exhibition, which aims at showcasing the multiplicity of Sri Lankan products available for export.

"I lost everything, my workshop, my sales center when the tsunami came. The women who have been working for me lost everything too. But it was nothing compared to the human loss we suffered," said M.B. Priyani, proprietor of Thilini Lace, who has been able to rebuild her business with the help of a number of organisations including the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in Sri Lanka (FCCSL) and its partnering chambers.

The FCCSL has been helping those affected by the tsunami to rebuild micro, small and medium scale enterprises through a private sector initiative called Back-to-Business.

The Back-to-Business project is responsible for sponsoring a number of tsunami-affected stalls at the 'Serendib' trade fair, which aims to promote Sri Lanka as a reliable and dependable trade partner.

Priyani's lace-making business was completely destroyed by the tidal-waves that killed over 30,000 people in Sri Lanka. But within a year she was able to rebuild her business and start exports to Denmark and Japan.

"This is not a journey I came alone. I took families from my village and other villages on this journey," said Priyani, who has worked for over 20 years in the trade to preserve a dying industry by encouraging housewives from Matara, Mirissa and Weligama to produce these traditional lace products.

Beeralu or lace-making, a cottage industry found in the Southern-coast of Sri Lanka, is a craft introduced by the Portuguese. Although the industry rose to legend proportions in the early 1900s, it is now being practised only by a handful of traditional lace makers.

The mother-of-five started the venture when she found herself unemployed on finishing her schooling.

"It seemed natural to give a trade-value to a craft that has been in the family for generations," said Ms Priyani, whose business was built on loans taken by her government-servant husband over the years and on the strength of her own designs.

Most of her products - table mats, table covers, lace frills for sleeves and necklines, lace belts, wristbands, shirts, ladies dresses, bed covers and cushion covers - contain designs created by her over the years.

The recipient of many trade awards, including the Best Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Ms Priyani is training young women in her district in the art of beeralu-weaving with the help of Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Company (HSBC).

"There are 18 women who directly work under me and I send work to housewives who are trained in the craft. I am also training new people every three months," said Ms Priyani, who recently won the Rising from Disaster Entrepreneur Provincial and National awards in addition to a gold medal as Woman Entrepreneur of the Year at the Tsunami Business Turnaround awards ceremony.

A timer at an international export exhibition, Ms Priyani hopes to attract a few foreign orders to supplement the income she generates by supplying products to local buyers like Barefoot, Lanka Hands, Tamarind Tree House and Craft Link.

"The traditional designs and weaving is attractive to foreigners. It has a good international market. But we haven't been able to penetrate it yet. I am hoping that doors will open following this event," said the optimistic entrepreneur.

Ms Priyani presented Stephen Timms, UK's Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who visited her stall with a lace tablecloth.

 

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Produced by Lake House Copyright 2006 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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