[Interview] Mario De Alwis, Founder, North Lanka Family Foods, Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan entrepreneur, Mario De Alwis, is founder and Managing Director of North Lanka Family Foods, a subsidiary of Ma’s Kitchen, acknowledged by the United Nations in 2021 as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world producing good food.
Please tell a little about your company.
North Lanka Family Foods is an investment by MA’S kitchen, a 35-year-old family managed business. We provide quality meal solutions for desiring consumers around the world. Our processing facilities are located in the production regions of Sri Lanka.
North Lanka Family Foods a multifaceted Food & Beverage processing facility is located in the Northern region of the country known for its hardworking farmer community. We buy milk, peanuts, sesame, rice and other agri-produce from small farmers in the vicinity and craft them into quality good food packaged and ready for supermarkets and retail stores under the brand “New beginnings”. By doing so we provide off farm employment for youth, a market to the farmers and bring back wealth to the region.
Were there particular circumstances in your community that led you to start your agri-food business and what support, if any, did you receive from local government or your community?
When we first thought of this investment the country was just recovering from the 30 year long ethnic conflict. It was in 2013, and the northern region was limping back to normalcy. We felt the urge to start up this business as a means of contributing to the national reconciliation effort. As the founder of the family company, I had seen lives and families destroyed and felt that I had to do something about it.
In the majority Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka the bringing of food is considered the basis of all human relationships. So inspired by the words of the Dalai Lama at the Rio earth summit on inner and outer disarmament, I believed that our expertise in good food was a valuable tool to drive the reconciliation effort. Investment in the region was considered too risky, so we sold off part of our company to raise capital to get things going.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic directly or indirectly impacted your business operations?
The Covid-19 Pandemic initially impacted our business in a negative way. After the initial shock of the unknown, the situation hardened our resolve. We set up protocols according to the health guidelines and consistently advised our employees on the need to change their behavior patterns. Then we got back to work. Even when someone got infected and could not come to work we were able to send their wages home by working as a team.
We however soon discovered the positives that came with the pandemic. We were able to communicate directly with the consumer as focus had shifted from mainline to social media. We were able to introduce our products better and market them through our fledgling online shop where we started using creative talents within our team. Our business soon recovered and did even better.
What other challenges have you faced in your journey and how have you worked to overcome these?
The main challenge we have had was to convince people that investing in the North was worth the risk against all odds. The social impact would justify our investment and in the long run people will start seeing what we are doing and support our work.
The people we were giving employment were not sure what we were doing as there was so much politics involved in the region. It took a while for them to understand that we were making an investment in them and not asking anything but their commitment to produce quality products which we could sell in the market and bring value to the region.
We had to be patient and understanding. We needed to constantly communicate and get to know the culture and finally we discovered each other. Soon we became one team and supplying good food became our one objective.
Describe what it means for your agri-food enterprise to be selected by the UN as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world?
Being recognized by the UN meant a lot to the team. It vindicated years of work and determination. I had sat through hundreds of meetings with stakeholders questioning this investment and finally, it has become not one man’s dream but something the world thinks they should have more of.
For the young people who believed in us and stayed through the hard times it brought joy and pride of recognition. With the money we received we made branded T-shirts with the winning logo for all our members so that they could go back into their communities as proud members of a winning team. We are putting up a giant billboard outside the factory bordering the only highway to the north which says “The Winning Combination Northern People, northern Produce Heartfelt Investment, Good food & Peace.”
What is your vision for 2022 and beyond in delivering a more nourishing, sustainable, equitable and resilient food system?
We are excited about the Future of North Lanka Family Foods. We are working on a project to certify 300 Farmers for Global GAP and Fair for life. Some of them will also be certified for organic production. We are currently setting up a testing facility to assist our outreach team to work on reducing pesticide and chemical residues in the crops. Aflatoxin levels which are hampering our export potential will be tested and managed, helping us to grow our export and local markets in 2022.
We will launch several nutritious and convenient shelf stable family meal solutions targeting working mothers and the children who will be returning to school post pandemic. The wide range of value for money products will also help working women to provide safe and nutritious meals to their family while handling their busy and tiring workdays.
What further support does your business and others like you need to create good and sustainable food for all?
Producing good food in a sustainable manner is not a business that gives quick returns. It will take a while for such operations to generate positive incomes if the pricing and incomes is good for all and sustainable. We need more impact funds that understand the importance of the work we do and that there are no quick rewards in this business. Access to such funding will help entrepreneurs to create good food at affordable prices for all while keeping the farming business sustainable by paying better prices for quality farm produce.
If such a shift does not take place urgently, more and more youth will leave the fields for work in the urban centers. If this migration continues there will be no producers who are so important to maintain the goodness of food and give the care needed to keep future generations fed.
What key advice would you give to others that would like to follow your example to become passionate, values-driven, innovative food entrepreneurs?
Never forget the important role you play when you provide good food to the people of this world. God created air and water for us and if you want to produce the next important thing, then you need to be strong, totally committed and passionate because it is God’s work delegated to mankind.
Do not spend time on what is already available; there are plenty who do that every day. Being innovative is what will differentiate an entrepreneur from the rest. The values you bring to your work will show up in your product. People will soon recognize this and reward you by their loyalty to your brands. Imagine the sensation of a hungry child tasting good nutritious food created by you; this multiplied will be your just reward every day of your life and will wake you up wanting to do more each morning.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel strongly about in providing Good Food For All?
The countries of the world must unite in seeing that affordable good food is for all. The pandemic has shown us that humanity is as strong as its weakest member. If we continue with our selfish ways and watch while some of us are malnourished and hungry then future pandemics are inevitable.
This interview is part of a series covering the winners of the United Nations Global Best Small Business Contest of Good Food for All.