Yathusha Kulenthiran’s Marketplace For Environmentally Sustainable Palmyra Products Empowers Female Artisans In Sri Lanka

Yathusha Kulenthiran is the young entrepreneur, based in Sri Lanka, behind Olai Shop, a marketplace for palmyra products made by local female artisans and sold to both local customers as well as foreign clients in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Denmark. She is a graduate of the Uki Coding School (part of the Yarl IT Hub) which was instrumental for her career, as otherwise, due to finances and other reasons, she would have not been able to attend state university. She is also the sister of another entrepreneur we featured in Gobinthiran Kulendran.

How did your life change in 2009?

I was in my primary grades when a war broke out. Given the chaotic situation then, we were frequently displaced from one place to another to live another day. We often ran out of food and water. Obviously, during this period I was unable to continue my education properly and focus on a constant path. There was always fear and depression at every turn, till it all came to an end in 2009. Yet, for those of us affected by war, life was never the same with the loss of loved ones and more.  Going back to “normal” with war trauma was not easy, but then one has to move on and start afresh with whatever we have. I had left my village as a little child and returned as a teenager, about to sit for my GCE OLs and ALs. It was a new phase in my life as I set out to find my path.

Why did you start Olai.shop?

I have always been keen and curious in learning about computers and technology. However, I was unable to enter the state university and also couldn’t afford to go for a private university after my ALs to pursue my passion in IT. So I decided to learn programming and coding through online sources. It was then, my brother recommended that I try out at Uki coding school. I was selected at the interview and got the opportunity to follow a 6-month full stack course.

It is during this period we were assigned to work on a project which required developing a software solution. Most of our village folk have always depended on agriculture and selling products made out of palmyra to earn their living. However, I noticed that their skillfully crafted palmyra products were not marketed sufficiently. This influenced me to come up with the idea of a platform to increase the visibility of the products to a larger audience through Olai Shop. It was highly appreciated and welcomed by the panel. Soon, with their mentorship and expert guidance. I was able to launch Olai shop into a successful startup. 

What is the significance of the palmyra trees in your life?

Born in an agrarian society in the North where 90% of our landscape is rooted in palmyra trees, most of our village folk have always depended on seasonal agriculture and selling products made out of palmyra to bring food to their plates. This Palmyra tree that is also known as “katpagatharu” (meaning “tree of life”) has helped us in more ways than one: from providing us with shelter to food. Most of our houses had roofs weaved out of palmyra leaves; sweets made out of the pulp extracted from the palmyra fruit; The tree is so valuable that everything from the crown of the tree to its roots can be used for something essential.

Even during the war, palmyra trees came to our rescue. Our survival depended on their fruits and roots to fill our stomachs while the palmyra trunks came in hand for building bunkers to shield ourselves from attacks. In 2009 among the debris of war, only the palmyra trees remained standing and were our ray of hope.  Today, they are the backbone of my success as an entrepreneur. 

How does the business make money?

Olai Shop is an ecommerce based online platform developed to sell diverse palmyrah-based products to a broader customer base. There is an increasing demand in the global market for these products as they are great substitutes for plastics and are environmentally sustainable as well. Currently we have several local customers and foreign clients from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Customers can order these palmyrah products via our online platform. We have a dedicated team of local women artisans who do a marvellous work in customizing these products to meet the demands of our customers.  We also take bulk orders from individuals. We earn a large income from the market upon doorstep delivery of the final products.

What was the impact of the Yarl IT Hub on you personally as well as the business?

I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for Yarl IT Hub. Uki coding School was also an initiative of Yarl IT Hub.  Thus joining Uki Coding School where I initially launched my Olai project,  gave me the valuable opportunity to interact with Yarl IT Community. They were of immense support and strength throughout my entrepreneurial journey, guiding me every step of the way. I also got the opportunity to pitch my idea at Yarl Geek Challenge and was awarded as the Runner Up. I was able to meet a lot of encouraging business professionals and was fortunate to meet foreign investors who were really interested in my idea. In time they also allocated me a temporary workspace to carry out my business activities. Later I was also selected for the YGC Accelerator program where I gained an exposure to the foreign market and gained a vast amount of business knowledge.

I am forever grateful to the Yarl IT Community who are always there to support me at any time.

Describe the entrepreneurial scene that you see in Jaffna.

Talking about Jaffna, today there is an increasing startup culture fostered by several organizations such as Yarl IT Hub, government institutes and more.They play a major role in providing guidance and mentorship, encouraging youth to innovate and inspire.Yet, there are still a few people who are ignorant and dismiss these opportunities. However, the increasing rate of success stories of entrepreneurs are a great influence in motivating upcoming young entrepreneurs.  It is also my aim to reach greater heights in my journey and become an inspiring role model to the younger generation especially girls.  

***Read the rest of interview at TamilCulture.com.***