By Dimithri Wijesinghe
The Sunday Morning Brunch wishes all our readers a fantastic Women’s Day and in celebration, we’d like to share the stories of inspiring women from Batticaloa, heading their households as the primary breadwinners for the family and truly thriving due to their own innovation and hard work.
59-year-old Kunanathan Nonawathi is the primary breadwinner of her family. Courtesy of her entrepreneurial skills and dedicated hard work, she has developed a business model that is nourishing not only her family but also the women in her area.
A business woman in her own right residing in Kiran West, Batticaloa, Nonawathi with the help of her husband, maintains a mushroom cultivation and is also the market facilitator and distributor for the 24 women who run mushroom cultivations in their homes in Kiran West.
The ladies who cultivate the mushrooms will bring over the raw mushrooms and Nonawathi will pack the fresh mushrooms, distribute them in the Batticaloa town, government departments, hotels, and other places.
This mushroom cultivation initiative was birthed under the guidance of the World Vision Lanka (WVL) project: “Sri Lanka gender and disability inclusive economic development project”, aka iLIVE, supported by the Australian Government.
Initially launched as a tool to encourage the community to save money, the women who took part in the programme got together and decided to start a business, taking into consideration the climate and resources and ease of maintenance, they came to the conclusion that mushroom cultivation was ideal for their situation.
With the aid of an external party, lecturer Rajapakshe from Hambantota, the women received basic business skill training and some technical assistance via WVL.
As Nonawathi and the other ladies continued on with their business, as is usual they were faced with their first major hurdle – the lifespan of the organic mushrooms they were cultivating had a shelf life of just only two days. They needed to find an alternative to this issue, if not a large portion of their produce was beginning to go to waste.
To find a solution, the ladies set out to experiment in multiple ways with the mushrooms, and they have now come up with a number of innovative ways to incorporate mushrooms and create various other products; their star player right now being “mushroom coffee”.
The product is called as such considering its bitter coffee-esque taste and resultant colour when made into a drink. Mushroom coffee, made with dried mushroom powder, kottamalli, and dry ginger is currently very popular and according to Nonawathi, it sells more than their standard mushroom packets. So much so that Nonawathi is now able to employ two women from her village and pay them Rs. 500 a day for their assistance in packaging her product.
Through the assistance of WVL they have even sent limited orders to countries like Switzerland and Australia.
This bitter taste that the dried mushroom powder was initially an unfortunate deterrent in their initial experimentations, considering that they were once hopeful they could substitute whole wheat flour to introduce organic and gluten-free flour. However, despite the bitter taste throwing a damper in those ideas, they managed to find a way around it and go ahead and still make some sweet dishes from the mushrooms.
Mushroom marshmallows, pancakes, and cake
This innovative idea came from Jesumalar (42) who now creates marshmallows from dried mushrooms and peanuts. Sales have picked up incredibly fast and to her repertoire she has added stuffed pancakes with sweet mushroom – similar to what you and I would call “pani pol” filling, but with mushrooms, and she also prepares cakes.
Jesumalar suffers from a disability which she was originally very shy and embarrassed about and therefore had refused to even participate in the WVL programme for skills development. However, she said that her friends in the neighborhood said that “if you do not come, we will carry you there” and so she had no choice but to go and since then, she has had immense success with her various efforts to try and create more and more items from mushrooms.
Jesumalar is most innovative in her efforts as she has expanded beyond food preparation; she also provides her organic mushrooms to Ayurveda vendors, and distributes mushroom food parcels to other skills development programmes in the area. According to her, back when she was running her grocery store, the income was around Rs. 10,000 per month and now it is around Rs. 60,000 and it never drops below Rs. 30,000.
The community has gone from strength to strength with very little assistance from external parties. Today, the women, while helping each other and boosting one another’s business ideas, are also able to fund their own resources such as packaging machinery and look into expanding.
Their ambition is enormous and they all echoed the same sentiment in that they were once afraid of ambition and looking forward to bigger and better things, imagining it to be a wasteful thought, but now they only wish that they can overcome their limitations in thinking because they are certain they could achieve whatever they may put their minds to.