‘Your Community’ is a series that hopes to bring recognition and business to the amazing entrepreneurs of our country as well as appreciate the wealth of talent and sheer resilience of spirit that exists among our people.
When spoken to, the majority of the SME’s indicate that their challenges are similar. They are struggling with access to the market and access to finance. They need guidance and support to overcome such obstacles. The Column “Your Community” addresses the need to create awareness, by sharing their compelling stories so that potential customers out there can connect with them. WCIC along with many partner organizations conducts continuous capacity building programmes for SMEs to gain knowledge of all aspects of business development.
Your Community’ provides exposure to inspirational women entrepreneurs by sharing their stories and making the world know how these courageous ladies are forging ahead. We feature this week an entrepreneur who has been supported by the WCIC in her journey.
Q Tell me about yourself?
I am Priyanka Pradeepa Kumari, a wife, mother and the owner of Priyanka Natural Foods. My success is due to the confidence, and the trust I have in myself and the dedication and passion that drives my actions.
My childhood dream was to become a teacher and empower future generations differently, providing them with a SMART toolkit to face any challenge. I completed my secondary education and pursued a course in accounting but couldn’t realise my academic dream. I chose to get married and start a family, yet my burning desire to contribute to society in a meaningful manner still prevailed.
Q What led you to start Priyanka Natural Food?
My desire to do something meaningful started taking shape when my “Dhoni” was born. The need to provide her with the best nutrition, just like all mothers want to, was my priority. Given the current lifestyle we lead and the prevailing habits this was no easy task.
I wanted to seek natural products, free from harmful chemicals, preservatives, additives etc, however, everything around me was far from safe. The period under review was 2008, and my business venture commenced with the intention of providing a natural, safe and nutritious range of products to consumers. Priyanka Natural Foods Private Limited came into being with a mandate to manufacture healthy and tasty sauces, jams, chutneys, sambals, and other natural herbal products, using organically grown local ingredients.
The life span of a human being in a natural healthy environment can span around 100-120 years. We have records of our ancestors who have reached those milestones living their life to the fullest. But today despite all the advancements in science, our average life span has dropped to 72-78 years, and rarely would you find someone completely healthy throughout this period.
The food we consume and the lifestyle we lead are the main reasons for the current predicament. The fact that the food we consume contains harmful chemicals, preservatives, additives and flavouring is no secret. It may provide a temporary satisfaction to the taste buds but long-lasting damage to our lives. Available statistics indicate 15 -20% of the Sri Lankan population is suffering from noncommunicable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol. Childhood diabetes has increased and by 2030 it is estimated to rise to 13.7%. These indicators do not point in the direction of a healthy nation.
An opportunity for me to make a difference evolved from the prevailing situation. I started by creating unique recipes enriched with herbs and traditional medicinal properties sourced from remote villages across the country. Our products do not contain any artificial ingredients, preservatives and additives that are harmful. Our ancestors had a healthy lifestyle consuming products that were natural and nontoxic. I believe even in today’s world this is possible; that is the premise of my business venture.
Q Tell us about your first product?
Entering an unknown territory I had to learn a lot and I sought the support of the Food Research Unit of the Department of Agriculture. Under their guidance, I did my first prototype - the Green Pepper Sauce in 2008. Subsequently, the technology related to the process was transferred from the Ministry of Technology & Research. I then set out to obtain an endorsement by a medical professional and reached out to Dr W A M Damayanti, the Traditional Medicine specialist at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Subsequent to stringent screening she endorsed it for its medicinal properties such as the ability to cleanse harmful toxins from the digestive system as well as for the taste parameters.
From there on I progressed with my research, wanting to develop something unique which could boost immunity, cleanse toxins and provide nourishment.
Q How did you choose to market your products?
Healthy natural foods were becoming a buzz world slowly, the fact that the concept came with a higher price tag made life a bit complicated. Convincing someone to spend extra on products just because we were offering food safety was not easy.
It was a tight rope walk; balancing the purchasing power of the potential consumer and yet encouraging them to reach out for what is good for them. Certification was a natural solution. I obtained the certification of the Sri Lanka Standards Institute in 2009. It helped me to expand my reach and create a greater presence at Trade Fairs & Exhibitions.
I got the opportunity to participate in an all-island competition organized by the Sri Lanka Industrial Development Board representing the SME category where I was awarded the Bronze Medal and the Gold Medal in the Western Province. This allowed me to create more innovations such as the Tamarind Jam, which was exported to South Africa via the Export Development Board in 2010.
My initial marketing strategy of promoting via trade fairs and exhibitions proved successful which made me pursue opportunities to increase my clientele. I participated at the Medicare exhibitions for several consecutive years, connecting with medical professionals from the western and traditional healthcare disciplines to test the health benefits of my produce. Today, many medical professionals are very comfortable recommending our products, eg. Cinnamon Bees Honey to mitigate Arthritis.
I felt it was important to reach out to the health-conscious consumer and managed to get a presence at The Good Market. This enabled me to reach out to a group that was already embracing the concept of healthy living with healthy eating. I have developed a loyal customer base who even during the pandemic and lockdown still ordered products continuously.
The business was thriving before the pandemic, as I had participated in approximately 15 trade shows and exhibitions per annum organized by various bodies such as the Sri Lanka Trade and Commerce Association, Sri Lanka Industrial Development Board and The Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC). However, with the outbreak of COVID, I changed my game plan and sought the online platform to support my business. My social media presence was heightened to engage and serve the consumer. Never let the change in the environment control you. Navigate through stormy waters to find a way out.
Q Talk to us about your business journey.
Innovation was the key to my success. I created new products continuously using new recipes which had their foundation in natural health benefits. I researched continuously when creating new products with the best local ingredients that could elevate nutritional levels. When expanding my product range my primary focus was to provide the consumer with healthy alternatives to be used to prevent chronic illnesses. Products such as Garlic Bee Honey Mix, Cinnamon Bee Honey Mix, Lemongrass Bees Honey, etc have been embraced by both local and international consumers as they are proven to reduce high blood sugar levels. Lemon & Ginger Bees Honey mix is known to cleanse the heart and boosts energy levels, herbs such as lunuwila are said to enhance memory power whilst acting as a natural deworming treatment. These medical portions have been created by researching all local medicines and techniques from ancient Sinhala and Tamil traditional medicinal recipes.
Yet another innovative product is sweet potato flour and manioc flour that can be used as a substitute for wheat flour. These are healthy alternatives that do not have the baggage that refined wheat has. But the issue is that the process is complicated and costly. Therefore the end products can be a bit steep. It is a choice you make to ensure you consume food that brings no harm.
I have concentrated on the emerging needs of the new generation who are becoming more health-conscious and are attracted to superfoods. We have created natural supplements inclusive of Elengi oil, Dates and Bees Honey that can be used as an alternative to whey protein supplements consumed by the gym enthusiast.
We have also experimented in the non-food, personal care space. We offer a range of hair and herbal oils which can enhance natural hair growth and prevent premature greying.
Q What are the main ingredients of your success?
Quality products with quality ingredients are our forte. My pledge is to provide the consumer with wellness and nutrition. The process may not make a huge return but I am content with my contribution towards creating a healthy society.
I connected with the Department of Agriculture in Gannoruwa and Matale and got introduced to many local farmers across Sri Lanka, but there are only a handful of farmers who can pledge to manufacture quality herbs and medicinal plants by nurturing the soil using organic manure, handpicking the produce and caring for the plant with love and affection. Today, I work with 10-15 such farmers across different localities, producing an array of herbal and medicinal plants such as cardamoms and cloves from Matale, cinnamon from Galle/ Matara, goraka from Kaluathra, pepper from Meegoda, rare medicinal herbs, Moringa from Ambalanthota and Belimal from Embilipitiya. The varying weather and environmental conditions provide the perfect setting to yield the maximum crop and quality of produce and I am indebted to this network for continuously supporting Priyanka Natural Foods.
The trust and confidence placed by my customers give me a great sense of satisfaction. I have customers who have connected with me at the start and still continue to be loyal. They seek new products that can be added to the range which in turn gives them the guarantee of good health. Priyanka Natural Foods predominantly caters to Sri Lankans and Sri Lankans residing overseas - Europe, USA, Middle East and Australia. They would like to have these products available in their speciality stores, and we are working on this.
Continuous involvement in what you do is essential for success. Since we are still a relatively small operation, we have many manual systems including small handheld domestic machinery to aid us in the process. Therefore, constant supervision is absolutely necessary. When you work with the interest of your consumer at heart, you tend to deliver the best no matter what the circumstances.
Q What are your plans for future growth?
With a view to catering to future demand, I secured a plot of land in Athurugiriya to create a new production facility. I am in the process of establishing the necessary technical capabilities to cater to emerging needs.
In order to promote the concept of eating healthy, we need to have the products accessible to the busy consumer. The best way to enhance market accessibility and visibility of Priyanka Natural Foods is to stock these healthy options alongside the generic products on the supermarket shelves. We are pursuing an alliance or partnership with one of the supermarket chains in Sri Lanka to create space for healthier options. This will enable customers from across Sri Lanka to access these products without any difficulty.
The next stage is to take Priyanka Natural Foods to the International Market on a much more sophisticated commercial scale. Connecting to markets such as USA, Europe, Australia via their supermarket chains can promote traditional Sri Lankan herbs and medicinal portions to the international platform. At this stage, my doors are open to strategic partnerships with any potential business or investor who seeks to create Priyanka Natural Foods as an export brand.
Q How has WCIC helped you in your journey?
WCIC, is a cohort of passionate female entrepreneurs who are willing to help each other. My key learning was how to elevate my professional personality by mingling with other like-minded professionals. It’s a great platform to learn from because every member is willing to guide you with their experience.
I achieved great recognition as a result of winning the WCIC Women Entrepreneur Silver Award in the Small Category in 2009 and 2017. From a professional development perspective, I acquired knowledge on Finance, Marketing, Taxation and Legal, having been exposed to many business forums and workshops. During the pandemic, the inability to conduct face to face meetings didn’t deter WCIC members from transferring knowledge. Capitalizing on modern technology and the widely used online platforms, we entrepreneurs were exposed to many training sessions during the pandemic. There is never a dull moment with WCIC.
Q How do you contribute to society?
The philosophy of my business is to contribute towards the betterment of society. Apart from the healthy contribution made under the brand label of Priyanka Natural Foods, I take pride in empowering local farmers and their communities by providing them employment opportunities. I have seen many of these families progressing in their life, their children taking up higher education and developing themselves and this brings me great joy and pride in the work I do.
As an individual and an entrepreneur, one of my values was to re-invest a certain degree of profits towards community development. Life is uncertain and this was endorsed during the recent outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic didn’t discriminate. It taught us the importance of being agile.
I give back by allocating capital and time towards uplifting the education standards in remote schools. You can earn money and it can disappear in a flash but your actions will always be remembered.
Q What is the best advice you can give to a young female?
Be SMART with your time, channel it towards upgrading your personality, business, spirituality and academic character. This way you can be very successful.
But however successful you are in your profession/ business, always remember at the end of the day you are a daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt and friend so be humble; always act with self-respect and dignity. Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) is the premier organization supporting entrepreneurs and professional business women. The membership is open to women who believe they can contribute to society as well as benefit from the many facilities the organization creates.
By Anusha David
For more information on ‘Priyanka Natural Foods,’ contact Ms Priyanka Pradeepa Kumari on email firstname.lastname@example.org