Supporting grassroots entrepreneurs is essential to revitalising Sri Lankan economy

The government should think of making macro-level interventions and adopt robust policy measures that it has never tried before.

Published: 26th January 2023 09:37 PM  |   Last Updated: 26th January 2023 09:58 PM   |  A+A-

Sri Lanka Parliament

Sri Lanka Parliament. Image used for representational purpose only. (File Photo | AP)

The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka is one of the worst to hit the country since its Independence. The island nation plunged into turmoil in March last year as people took to the streets blaming "government mismanagement" of the economy for the crisis. The protests forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country in July, three months after his cabinet resigned in April. Subsequently, on July 20, Parliament elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as president. 

Now, even as the country reels under the impact of financial crisis, this could be the apt moment for the government to rise to the challenge by carrying out long-overdue reforms. Essentially the government should think of making macro-level interventions and adopt robust policy measures that it has never tried before.

Macroeconomic measures could help ease the current financial crisis, but the nation should go on a road of fostering and accelerating grassroots entrepreneurship in order to have a long-term positive impact on the economy and stimulate growth.

Recognising that Sri Lanka's economy is primarily driven by Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), which account for more than half of the nation’s GDP, is essential to enabling sustained improvement. The industry also contributes significantly to 45% of all jobs and has a real potential to put the country back on its feet. However, only 25% of these businesses are owned by women, and MSMEs led by women often struggle to transition out of the informal sector. Vulnerable groups like the Tamil youth who are struggling to find jobs and sustain themselves should not only be uplifted but empowered to become job creators instead of job seekers. 

The core of humanitarian organisations' initiatives to rehabilitate livelihoods following the 2004 Tsunami was fostering of entrepreneurship. A Youth Entrepreneurship Development Program from the 1990s helped numerous young people establish their businesses with the help of a revolving loan and expert mentoring in the past. The programme helped young entrepreneurs identify new clients and learn how to target them with appropriate offerings in addition to offering them advice and training on how to start their businesses.

A robust micro-entrepreneurship programme can be built to address the current crisis that has been roiling Sri Lanka by using the lessons learned during those post-Tsunami years. Rural entrepreneurs can benefit from a methodical, step-by-step approach to education and training that will not only assist them in developing an entrepreneurial attitude and set of skills but will also direct them toward long-term business growth.

Emerging rural entrepreneurs may be motivated to develop their ideas through interactions with others and platforms like business competitions, entrepreneurial hackathons, and incubator facilities. The Yarl Geek Challenge is a good example of how contest-combined mentoring has created workable and successful businesses. These competitions will not only provide support but also ignite locals' entrepreneurial spirit and remove their fear of failure.

Volunteer mentors can be enlisted to assist young people in starting micro-enterprises, ancillary units, and services businesses. These mentors may be experienced business owners, corporate executives, banking and finance experts, or college and university lecturers. One of the major interventions that can aid rural entrepreneurs in developing the necessary skill sets is step-by-step counselling of the local communities on how to approach a business idea, how to hire and retain resources to run a firm, how to access banks for a loan, etc.

Even when business owners have good ideas, it can be a challenge to convince a bank to give them the credit they want. Rural entrepreneurs can be helped to market their ideas to banks and investors so they can get business financing with the help of customised training. Such training wouldn't only involve taking a conventional course to get certified; instead, it would give participants a thorough understanding of the workings of the industry and give rural entrepreneurs access to practical instruction from mentors who have received duly accreditation.

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Establishing and/or encouraging a core group of mentors to assist aspiring business owners in transitioning from a start-up to a successful enterprise is one of the most crucial things the government can do. Step-by-step counselling of the local communities on how to approach a company idea, how to hire and retain resources to run a firm, how to access banks for a loan, 
etc. is one of the key interventions that can help rural entrepreneurs gain the necessary skill sets.

For instance, a young woman from Aurangabad who had recently lost her husband, received help to develop her business abilities so she could successfully launch and run her sportswear business. Mentoring support was extended to another young man from Pune who had learned fine art and worked as a graphics designer to launch his safety helmet decals printing business.
The biggest obstacle to a nation creating a successful network of micro-enterprises run by women and young people is a lack of enough funding.It can be difficult to persuade a bank to grant business owners the credit they need, even when they have solid ideas. The government can assist in this by lowering restrictions on beginning business relationships with Indian enterprises.

For a country like Sri Lanka, agriculture and aquaculture are two excellent business prospects. The government must encourage agri-based businesses by enhancing the supply chain, improving financial access, providing training, and fostering the export of Sri Lankan agri-products.

It is time to re-establish and implement women and youth entrepreneur development programmes in order to reinvigorate the grassroots entrepreneurial ecosystem of Sri Lanka. This can assist intelligent and bright young people in becoming wealth builders and job providers rather than unemployed job seekers lining up for government handouts if approved and carried out in the right spirit. Time is of the essence!

Lakshmi Venkataraman Venkatesan is Founding and Managing Trustee, Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust 
Prof. G. "Anand" Anandalingam is Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Management Science, University of Maryland


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