Cottage industries offer hope in former war zone

Cottage industries such as poultry farming, home gardening and bee-keeping are becoming increasingly popular among returnees in Sri Lanka's former northern conflict zone as alternatives to regular jobs, officials say.

"We have seen a lot of applications for loans for poultry and home gardens," Prem Kumar, area manager for the Bank of Ceylon, one of Sri Lanka's two largest state-owned banks, told IRIN in northern Vavuniya District.

"When jobs become harder to find, people find it easier to start something on their own, especially so when they see there are opportunities to succeed."

With job creation low, unemployment at about 20 percent and under-employment around 30 percent, cottage industries now play a vital role in generating income in the former war zone, say government officials.

"They have now become an important part of income-generation efforts," Piencia Charles, the country's top government official for Vavuniya District, explained.

High on the list is poultry farming. "The reason is because there is a ready-made market in the villages. You really don't have to worry too much about transport," Kanagasabapathi Udayakumar, the general manager of the Vavuniya North Multi-purpose Cooperative Society (MPC), noted.

A kilogramme of chicken sells for around Rs350 (US$3) and the MPC itself made a profit of around Rs80,000 ($730) when it recently sold a flock of 200 birds.

"This time we have around 500, targeting Christmas," Udayakumar said.

In the village of Allankulam in Mullaitivu District, Selvakumar Arundha hopes to make a similar profit from her 100 birds. She started the farm with an initial investment of $270 pooled by six women in early 2010. Now each one earns about $2.50 per day from the farm.

"Most of us used the money we earned from taking part in cash-for-work programmes," she said.

Another group of women has formed a similar venture involving a small vegetable plot.

"Next time, we hope to try tobacco. It will give us a better profit," Thangarasa Sivakolandy, one of the members, said.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is supporting 30 single female-headed households in the Vavuniya North region to set up home paddy parboiling operations by January 2012.

Under the scheme, each woman will be given a grant of Rs75,000 ($680) to buy the large pots needed for the parboiling and build a small storage area.

According to ILO officials, the women will be linked to five small mills near their villages, also supported by the organization, which will buy the paddy. A kilogramme of paddy will make them a profit of around Rs5 and the mills will buy the paddy for at least two years. ILO plans to fund 10 such mills and 60 households.

The MPC's Udayakumar sees another advantage in popularizing parboiling and milling within the region. "We won't fall prey to the price mafia," he said.

During the last paddy harvest, outside buyers drove down prices because of the lack of processing facilities in the region. "Farmers could not keep the harvest so they were buying at prices sometimes 40 percent below market rates."

Bee-keeping potential

"With over 50,000 hectares of jungle in the Vavuniya North Division, there may be potential to develop a bee-keeping and honey-producing industry," the ILO said in a recent project update.

One person could manage 10 hives easily, which would provide an income of about Rs72,000 ($650) during the two annual harvesting seasons, Kiruja Sivasubaramanium, an ILO official working on the project, explained.

Meanwhile, Udayakumar said that once the roads connecting remote villages such as Nedunkerni became more easily accessible, the importance of cottage industries would increase even more, at least in the short term.

"Now, because of transport difficulties, it is very hard to take fresh produce like vegetables to the south. Once the road is better everyone will want to grow vegetables, which fetch higher prices than paddy," he said.

A few months earlier, eggplant became a particularly popular commercial vegetable in Nedunkerni and Olumadu but soon almost everyone stopped growing them.

"Because buyers from outside were making a killing, buying at Rs10 per kilo here and selling at between Rs30 to 40 [elsewhere]," Udayakumar said.

According to the UN, more than 380,000 war-displaced have returned to Sri Lanka's former conflict zone, making the re-establishment of local livelihoods a key component to recovery efforts.