BY KATHYA DE SILVA SENARATH
Chanaka Kurera’s journey to become the owner of a thriving business has been no cake walk. Rekindling his passion for organic food and identifying Sri Lanka’s unique potential in this regard he worked well to establish his business in Canada. He now has an internationally recognised brand through which he showcases Sri Lanka’s unique food heritage to the rest of the world.
Kurera spoke to the Sunday Observer about the value of traditional knowledge and the benefits of organic farming whereby Sri Lanka could become the ‘pearl of a nation’ that it once was.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q. Tell us about your background and how you began your journey.
A. I was born and raised in Negombo. I currently live in Montreal, Canada with my wife and business partner Marise and our two children. When I was 21 years old, I moved to Japan after completing my studies at Maris Stella College in Negombo.
There I worked in manufacturing and food service, often doing two jobs on day shifts and night shifts to cover my bills and send extra money home.
I lived there for seven years trying to hustle through life, but didn’t really find a sense of purpose for my future.
After I met Marise, who has a background in nutrition, she would often speak to me about ancestral diets, traditional medicines and social fairness. My inner passion for these areas sparked and it was as if my purpose had been rekindled. From our early days in Japan, we were always dreaming about creating a business that would bring Sri Lanka’s traditional knowledge and unique foods to Canada and the rest of the world.
Q. Tell us about your business and how you built it up.
A. We started out with a small coconut thatch tiki hut on Saint-Denis Street in Montreal, serving herbal teas and non-dairy masala chai lattes in handcrafted coconut cups.
Our first imports were coconut thatch, coconut cups and five kgs of each tea variety. On our first day, we made $10 in sales. Business picked up over the coming months to an average of $100 to $150 which was still not sustainable.
In the fall, with Marise being pregnant with our first daughter, it was clear that our business model needed to evolve. The obvious next step was offering our products in retail packaging and by Christmas we had our first shipment of retail packed Masala Chai Tea for sale in a handful of health food shops around Montreal.
Fast forward 15 years, today, as the President and CEO of Cha’s Organics, I oversee our operations both in Canada and Sri Lanka on a daily basis.
We have a wonderful and committed team that has expanded over the years. Our product range has expanded to include a wide variety of Sri Lankan origin fair trade, organic foods, and we distribute these to supermarket chains, health food shops, restaurants and food manufacturers across Canada in addition to offering these online through our own ecommerce platform and many more.
Q. What made you choose this path and how did your passion grow?
A. I believe food is our medicine. After discovering our country’s heritage of traditional, organic farming and the extensive knowledge base we possess in this area, it was obvious for me that I needed to bring this to the world and offer people an opportunity to enjoy our high quality foods for their taste and nutritional benefits.
I wanted to make sure our farmers got the recognition they deserve for all of their efforts, and received a fair share for the food they grow for us. This is why Cha’s Organics had been a dedicated Fair Trade brand since day one, and a leader in the Canadian Fair Trade movement.
Q. How do you ensure that your products are indeed organic?
A. In accordance with Canadian law, all of the products we import are certified organic from farm to table by an accredited international certifying body.
In addition to the audits carried out by the certifier, we maintain close contacts with our growers and endeavour to source from only the most dedicated organic farmers and processors who are as true as we are to the mission of organic. We also carry out third party testing in Canada to screen for chemical impurities, of which we have not found any to this day.
Q. What were the challenges you encountered along the way?
A. As an entrepreneur, challenges are to be expected and it’s the attitude these are met with that most determines one’s chances of success. From cash flow growing pains to maintaining product integrity and supply levels to juggling many different priorities in day-to-day operations, it’s truly not an easy path.
That said, I have found that every challenge brings experience and contains a lesson. When properly addressed, challenges lead to the greatest growth and innovation.
Early on, one of our biggest challenges was creating a name for our products in the Canadian market. When our current sales director Matty Caspersz approached us to join forces, his involvement in building to the next level is what really helped elevate our brand positioning.
From then on, it was always a matter of finding the right people who could continue to propel our business forward and we haven’t looked back. Delegating can be difficult for us entrepreneurs, but as we like to say, teamwork makes the dream work!
Q. Tell us about your learning period and who supported you?
A. Over the years, I have indeed committed much time to learning about organic production and every year I learn more. In this area, Marise and I both had some level of theoretical knowledge but to be honest the most valuable information I have gained has always been from the farmers.
They are the most valuable experts when it comes to growing food organically. Theory can only go so far, but what we have seen is that in real-life application every situation is unique and must be addressed by someone who is extremely well-versed in the production or organic food.
We’ve gained this level of knowledge from years of hands-on experience working with different crops and in different areas of the country.
When it comes to organic processing techniques and balancing our need for eliminating all forms of chemicals while maintaining product integrity and food safety, this is where Marise’s back ground in food science has been invaluable.
Q. Your thoughts on Sri Lanka’s food consumption patterns.
A. It’s unfortunate that we have not paid enough attention to our food culture, which is traditionally based on a diversity of foods and a far more balanced diet than what we typically see today.
By adopting more traditional diets that resemble what our ancestors ate in pre-colonial times, we can certainly improve the health of the nation.
For example, our modern white rice varieties are less nutritionally dense and contains chemical residues both from agricultural chemicals and post-harvest fumigation. Choosing organic, heirloom varieties that are not contaminated with chemicals provide more nutrients with a lower glycemic index.
Complementing these with a variety of traditional vegetable dishes and legumes with less focus on animal proteins is more in line with what our ancestors ate in pre-colonial times. This type of diet would not only be healthier for our community, but also the planet and would help us achieve food security for Sri Lanka.
Q. What do you feel about the government ban on chemical fertiliser, weedicides and pesticides?
A. As a dedicated organic brand, we applaud this direction. We truly believe that if successfully adopted, organic agriculture will help heal our nation and elevate our country as a shining example to the world and the pearl of a nation we have the potential to become. Organic farming is in the DNA of our agricultural heritage and returning to these roots should be second nature.
Q. What do you see as challenges and ways to overcome them in your opinion?
A. Sadly, after too many years of conditioning and from colonial and corporate interests, our nation has become weakened to the point where many people no longer have access to our own traditions when it comes to farming.
Instead of learning from the elders who possess this knowledge and from the land through direct experience in its application, most of our farmers are now educated by what amounts to sales reps for chemical based farming.
They have up to now not been encouraged to build the health of their soil and instead they have been shown only chemical inputs as a way to achieve high yields through the so-called “good agricultural practices” of the corporate-driven Western world.
So we understand that an immediate transition to organic seems like a daunting task.
Without healthy, living soil, organic agriculture is not an easily attainable goal. In fact, the very notion of organic is rooted first in caring for the soil and this system puts soil health at the center of its philosophy.
Soil that has been depleted over the years through over-use of micro biome-killing chemicals such as glyphosate and which has not been enriched with organic matter through the regular use of compost and cover crops, will not perform well if chemicals are simply stopped.
This is why our absolute first priority must be with the farmers, to help them rapidly build soil health and increase organic methods of agriculture. Simply removing the chemicals and replacing them with more natural inputs will not be enough if we fail to encourage them with the real best practices in agriculture, which revolve around building healthy living soil.
The farmers network we work with have this knowledge, and it is shared with all members in accordance with the fair trade principles we operate with. We encourage this knowledge to be adopted more widely among the farming community and we are available to help in this area as needed.
Q. Can organic food producers approach you to sell their products?
A. Yes, absolutely. We are working with farmers who are organised into fair trade networks, and we are always looking to help expand these networks to include more dedicated organic growers as members.
Q. What advice would you give young entrepreneurs who would like to explore this path?
A. First and foremost, find your own unique path and vision, and follow this with passion and confidence. When you believe in your project wholeheartedly, opportunities will be more abundant. You must also develop your knowledge base and skill sets and seek out partners who align with your values and complement your strengths and areas of expertise.
Be open to change and suggestions, and always aim for continuous improvement. Finally, when you get stuck and find something is not available or possible that you require to make your project work, see what you can do to change this. Never give up or assume change is not possible.