Monday, October 25, 2010

If one Googles Sri Lanka….

By Rohantha N.A. Athukorala

Last week I was on route on UL 227 to address a Global Forum on Tea that was staged in Dubai. As soon as the aircraft was airborne and was gaining height I could see the contour of Sri Lanka taking shape. My mind went back to the time when I had to travel almost on a weekly routine to Jaffna on military aircrafts to develop the private sector businesses in Jaffna during the height of the final battle. From a 34 companies that were operating in Jaffna in the 1990’s, we were able to harness the real potential of the peninsula where by the end mid 2009 there over one hundred and fifty private sector companies operation either directly or through indirect methods of distribution. But even with all this work amidst a war with one of the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world, if one googled brand Sri Lanka, the reports were not that encouraging.

Googling in March-2009

The googled information that surfaced were the bombings in the Vanni and the alleged civilian casualties, the human shields that were been used by the LTTE, Political instability in the country, the down turn of business in the private sector, the continous fall of the stock market, the ballooning budget deficit that was at double degit and the fear psychosis that was gripping the city that resulted in the low tourist arrival into the country. Things were pretty negative at that time.


Today if one googled Sri Lanka, the data we see on our computer screen is quite different. The ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with Asia Pacific, A bid to host the 2018 common wealth games, Indian star Vivek Oberoi doing a film in Sri Lanka, The stock market ranked as the best in the world, American business delegation discussing business, Weekly conferences by almost all chartered Association attracting the cream of talent like the great Sally Darwie of the British Olympic bid team, over subscribed bond issue of the Central Bank, Many companies wanting to launch IPO’s and to cap it Private sector profits growing by 284% whilst the tourism arrivals booming to an all time high.

Whist these can be the positive reports emanating just like any country in the world be it China, India, Thailand, South Africa, Vietnam or Russia there is bound to be some negative reports. In case of Sri Lanka the googled information pieces are the Army General in prison, agitation by University students, opposition crying out on the emerging dictatorial rule, the fall in trade pacts such as GSP+ due to Human Rights issues. In my view this is what adds colour to brand Sri Lanka even though it can be unpleasant in reality.

Googling in December- 2011

On the other hand if one were to google Sri Lanka on the 31st of December 2011(end of next year) what will we like to see. The following can be some of that data that should be show cased.

1. Doing business –top 50 country

We must see reports where Sri Lanka is ranked as a top 50 country on the ‘Doing Business Index’ from the current 105th position. We must get strong ranking on attributes like Paying Taxes from the current 62 payments per year to just 1payment just like Malaysia. The total tax as a percentage of the revenue from the current staggering 64% to a equtable level that is acceptable to an investor.The ranking on Enforcing of contracts from the current 1318 days to around 321 as it is in Luxemburg, Time taken to register a property from 83days to 2 days like in Saudi Arabia. Getting construction permits from the current 214 days to 67 days that is taken in China.

If these strategic reforms are not done and announced to the world we not be able to attract the global companies to invest in Sri Lanka even after the hard earned war from the LTTE is my view.

2. Lending rates-hotels biase

The cost of finance must be at a competitive rate to the Hospitality industry so that even with a Average Room Rate(ARR) at 150 dollars from the current 82, so that a typical investment can be financially attractive. As at now constructing a five star room ranges around 18-20 million rupees and unless the ARR are at around two hundred and fifty dollars the return will not be attractive on a time scale of 8-10 years. The logic being by 2015 we must target fifteen percent of the countries employment levels to be consumed by this industry. This will enable the country to achieve a zero poverty level. This is the kind of data that I would like to see by end December 2011 when I google Sri Lanka.

3. Exports-10 billion

There must be a report that Sri Lanka’s Exports industry to have crossed a ten billion dollar barrier. The focused industries that may be featured might be the soft ware sector, Tea, Apparel and Rubber just to name a few. Whilst focusing on the SME sector, for a quick win large organizations will have to be targeted for support so that we cross the magical mark. Which means that the googled data will have interviews of the industry captains to give credibility to brand Sri Lanka.

4. Atchuweli –a reality

By end of December 2011 there has to be something very significant from an economic sense in Jaffna. Atchuweli Industrial Zone being featured will propel the overall attitude to business in the conflict driven marginalized business sector of Jaffna for a typical viewer. This must not be confined to the four Apparel companies but also targeting the 43 SME’s who wants to enter the main stream business of Sri Lanka. This will give a positive rub off to the diaspora that keeps attacking Sri Lanka.

5. PPP –infrastructure

It will do a world of good if we can have some large conglomerates being featured on the news reports on a successful partnership with the government on infrastructure development. This could be the Kalpitya tourism development project on Waste managemnent, Kuchchaveli or the Pasikudah hotel development projects where water systems are required to just name a few.

6. People ownership

We have to accept that governments around the world have not been successful in driving business. We must ensure that at least the key industries such as LPG gas, Sri Lankan Airlines are up and running by end December 2011 so that we give the give the correct vibes globally when Sri Lanka is googled.

7. Tea –Lease
The first privatization asset of the country was the Plantations sector. A colossal 1.5 billion loss making industry has been made viable by the strong leadership of the private sector. One of the key recommendation of the ten man committee appointed by the President in 2008 was to increasing of the lease period to cover two cycles of bush life and hence to 66 years. By 2011 December this recommendation must have hit the market place and it must be on all web sites around the world so that Sri Lanka is featured as a country that is serious on developing the agricultural sector which is linked to lower earning households of Sri Lanka.

8. SME’s –new policy

Lets accept it the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy is the Small and Medium Enterprises(SME’s). It is paramount that we have the new SME policy activated by the end of 2011 so that we can unleash the true potential of the country. The good news is that the white paper is ready and if this can be firmed up and linked to developmental agenda of the Industrial Estates so that Sri Lanka will be seen as a model country in the development drive of the SME sector. This will further strengthen the Mahinda Chintanaya Ediri Dekma is my view.

9. Hubs

In the recent past, many of us have been involved on forums in sketching out the ‘Hub status’ on different sectors. At least by end of next year it’s important that one of them takes shape in form or structure so that we visually demonstrate a key identity for a Sri Lanka. May be it can be the Naval hub with the development of the Hambanthota harbor.

10. APTA-link to the world

Operationalizing the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement(APTA) by end of next year must be a high priority task so that it becomes the vehicle that tells the world that Sri Lanka is seen to bridging the linkages to the rest of the world. This can be a demonstratable action so that the rest such as EU can follow suit which will hit the global websites of the world.


Above are only some of the initiatives that I am personally exposed to that I believe must be on the computer screen when Sri Lanka is googled but in a macro sense, there can be many more relevant than the above. The idea is that we need now see real actions hitting the global market place than just press releases so that googling Sri Lanka becomes a experience that a chore.

From the vibes I got from a cross section of countries at the ‘Dubai Conference’ it was very clear that Sri Lanka is taken seriously now. In fact I was proud to be Sri Lankan. Now the challenge is how we make this benefit the common man on the streets of Sri Lanka.

The thoughts expressed by the author are purely his own views and is not reflective of the office he holds in the Public, Private or the International civil service.

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