Agriculture has always played a pivotal role in the development and economy of the little island of Sri Lanka. Its geographic location provides immense benefits in terms of the local climate and rich fertile soil. While crop species that provide the world with tea, rubber and spices have stolen the economic spotlight, the potential of many of Sri Lankan’s other native flora are yet to be explored. Recognizing this, Olai is a young local startup exploring this potential.
Primarily Olai is looking at the Asian Palmyrah – grown in abundance in northern parts of the island, this plant has provided a livelihood to many who live there. Various parts of the Palmyrah tree has been used by the locals for food, construction, handicrafts and even in the production of the native alcoholic delicacy – toddy. An integral part of the community, this towering fan leafed plant has been crowned the symbol of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
The road to entrepreneurship
Growing up in Killinochchi, young Yathusha Kulenthiran and her family underwent harsh living conditions as a result of the country’s infamous civil war. Palmyrah trees played an integral role in the family’s wellbeing and survival. “Palmyrah trees came to our rescue wherever I was displaced. My survival depended on the Palmyrah tree, its fruits and roots served as our source of sustenance, its trunks came in handy for building bunkers to shield from attacks.”
It was after the war was over, that Yathusha was able to properly focus on her education. Her interest was peaked in areas of Business and IT. Failing to enter local universities and unable to afford to attend a private one, she began her career in the IT industry by learning User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) design from her brother.
Just as young Yathusha was unsure of where she was headed, she was accepted into the Uki Coding School by the Yarl IT Hub. It was here that she developed the skills needed for her entrepreneurship journey in a growing digital age.
Olai is born
The primitive concept of Olai began through one of Yathusha’s final projects at Uki. Olai.shop was launched in 2019 and now sells a collection of handicrafts ranging from coasters and tablemats to photograph frames and handbags. These products come from the leaves of Palmyrah trees – dried, woven and sometimes even coloured to create products of the highest quality.
A significant addition to their product portfolio is one that is edible; the nutritious substitute for white sugar – Palmyrah Jaggery or Panankaddi as the locals call it. Syrup from the Palmyrah tree is extracted by tapping and purified through a process of filtration and boiling. The juice extract is then cooled, broken down and packaged. Along with this, Olai.shop has also diversified its range of edible products to Palmyrah sprouts, palm sugar and odiyal chips. All products are shipped worldwide, for anyone to indulgence in these delicious treats courtesy of the Asian Palmyrah tree of Sri Lanka. In doing so, this small startup by a teenager has now come to be known as Jaffna’s Favourite Jaggery Boutique.
Yathusha started Olai.shop with the intention of taking hand crafted palmyrah based products beyond the borders of the North and into the world. She not only succeeded in connecting these products to the global market but has also helped enrich the community she grew up in. Olai provides daily work to around 20 artisans; local connoisseurs in weaving and confectionery production.
The role of technology in taking palmyrah global
Although high-end technology does not play a major role in the manufacture of Olai’s products, it is a vital part of the venture’s success due to the unmatched marketing and sales opportunities provided. Unlike a retail store, subject to seasonal sales with the presence of tourists in the area, Olai’s online platform has helped the business connect with customers year-round and from all corners of the world. Moreover, payments are made easier with secure online banking facilities through Xoom, regardless of the customer’s location and choice of currency.
In addition to this, a social media presence and insights now help businesses attract and quantify the traffic on their pages to make more informed decisions and minimize losses. The site also hosts a blog for anyone to be updated on all things related to the palmyrah industry. Having a blog on a business’ website provides the additional advantage of attracting customers through enhanced search engine optimization.
Online ventures also provide businesses with easier collaboration opportunities, better targeting of audience segments and create a healthier overall work-life balance for the business owner. Furthermore, maintaining and growing a small business online has relatively low initial capital investment and operating costs compared to traditional retail startups. Thus, success stories of online stores such as Yathusha’s Olai.shop are aimed at inspiring young and upcoming entrepreneurs to explore more of the natural resources Sri Lanka has to offer, through this increasingly popular branch of new-age startups.