June 24, Colombo: (UNDP feature) There isn't a supermarket in sight. Instead, a morning shopping expedition for Merin Kalpana and the women of the Valalai Women's Rural Development Society is simply a walk down to the beach.
The fisherman pull their boats up early, and the nets are brimming with all sorts of seafood. This area in Sri Lanka's Northern Province is famous for its crabs, prawns and fish and the women know a dozen delicious ways to cook them all.
Their food is in demand in Valalai, where they sell a range of items from snacks to lunch packets. Kalpana attributes some of their success to these choice ingredients which have allowed them to resurrect a few classics of Northern Sri Lankan cuisine. Dishes like Kool - a spicy soup made with local yams and fresh seafood - are among their specialties. The recipes they use come from elders in the community and are reliably tasty.
Now they have bigger ambitions. They plan to set up shop in this new building which represents an exciting next step in a delicious enterprise. It was erected for them under the European Union (EU) funded Catalytic Support to Peacebuilding program in Sri Lanka.
The €8.1 million program is being implemented by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in partnership with a range of state and non-state partners.
The society was able to buy this land for a steal. "The land gets waterlogged," says Kalpana, adding that it is prone to flooding during the rainy season. However, their new food center accounts for this - standing on stilts it is designed to float above any flood waters that come its way. Right by the main road, it has an enviable location. And then there's the view - the sea is walking distance.
UNDP came into to design the building and provide everything the women needed to get their food and beverage outlet running - including furniture and vital equipment. These inputs will ensure the business grows and can handle more clientele.
Providing for her children
When Kalpana first began cooking and selling food, it was as an individual, working out of her own kitchen at home. Her husband Bhaskara Singham is a fisherman, but the work is seasonal and the income unreliable. This is a problem in part because they have two young children to feed at home - Karish is 11-years old and Ayshtika is just 6. It made sense for Kalpana to start her own little business to help provide for them. Around her other women were doing the same.
The women also had in common their experience of being displaced. These families had been resettled here in 2015 - having been away from home for nearly 15 years. The return didn't bring on a flood of nostalgia. Initially, Kalpana couldn't even find her home.
All the buildings had been swallowed by jungles, and there were still stray mines and other unexploded ordinances to remind them of the war. Public infrastructure was lacking, and no public transportation to take you to places.
In those early months, home was the local church hall. Then they graduated to cadjan huts - "It was like living in a goat shed," Kalpana recalls - and then to a semi-permanent house.
Today, Kalpana lives in a permanent home and is beginning to experience some of the security she took for granted before they were displaced.
Doing more together
Kalpana had already begun her business when she found herself chatting with one of the other mothers under a tree that served as the nursery school. By this point, it was clear that working alone was not always ideal. Big orders were taxing and visits from the Public Health Inspector were also discouraging - it was very hard to maintain the standards required when working out of your own kitchen, by yourself. The women realized they could do more - but only if they did it together.
They formed the Valalai Women's Rural Development Society in April 2016. "At first we had nowhere to meet," says Kalpana. They continued to work out of houses till they were able to buy the land, until UNDP came in to support them.
Working together offered its own challenges, says Kalpana. "However, we learned how to tap the experience of the experts in our group and the elders in our community, and the quality and taste of our food has gotten better and better." They are now able to handle big orders, like the one they fulfilled recently for over 1000 dosais.
Before, their profit margins would suffer when they sold through middlemen and other stalls. "Now that we have our own outlet we won't have to worry about that," she says. The women share the profits equally after covering all their expenses.
Role models to the community
Their success has made them role models for their community, says Kalpana with pride. "We are happy to be able to save for our children's education." UNDP's partner organization OfERR Ceylon gave them the support they needed to create a business plan and figure out how to price their food and meet their overheads. It's been so successful that the women are not only taking money home to their families but are also contributing to the village itself, by helping to meet expenses for the nursery school. The local Divisional Secretariat are loyal customers, and they have many regular clientele among workers in the area.
"We have earned the respect of our community," says Kalpana.