Achala Samaradiwakara is the co-founder and director of Good Market, Sri Lanka. Good Market is celebrating their fifth anniversary this 9th December, since its inception as a community platform for ethical producers and consumers that is good for people and good for the planet, five years ago. In this interview with Women Talk, Achala talks about the formative phase of Good Market, the potential of social enterprise in strengthening communities, and how the initiative developed into a renowned local and global platform for ethical enterprise.
You are a Good Market co-founder and director. You have extensive experience working in areas such as economic development, youth and children, social enterprise, and market linkages for rural producers. Before we get to the Good Market, let’s start with how this journey began for you?
I was born in Kurunegala. I grew up there and my parents sent me to Colombo for my education. In Colombo, I saw the differences between the village and the city. The city was developed but there were so many gaps. In particular, when it came to food we could not find healthy and natural products easily in Colombo. And the consumers in the city also had a need to access such natural and healthy food, in particular for their children. There were many opportunities for rural communities where we could easily find ethical and natural products that did not pollute the environment. I knew that such products were being made in the villages. But they needed a place to market their products. So, there was a gap between the producers and the consumers. They were not well-connected. With the Good Market, we thought of creating a platform to get these two groups into one platform without any middlemen.
That is how the idea came up. My background was also in Economics. The other founder, Dr Amanda Kiessel, has a PhD in Environmental Science. It was a really good match to work together and develop a concept. The main thing we thought was if someone was doing something good for the people and the planet, we have to give them the opportunity to come and connect with the Good Market platform. It was like creating an eco-system, to connect.
The fifth year anniversary of the Good Market, Colombo falls on the 9th December 2017. How did you found the Good Market five years ago with Dr Amanda Kiessel?
We both worked for an NGO, working in the rural sector. After my university, I wanted to do something to develop the local economic system. I wanted to try different models. Especially, when it comes to the commercial and private sectors, they are more into profit maximising. They do some CSR initiatives but when it comes to their whole process they may not be that good for the environment and the people.
The NGOs are trying to do something but still they are depending on donor funds. My first job was also in the NGO sector. That is where I met Amanda. We both talked as friends and were determined to do something. We thought we have to get together and try something out first. At that time, the social enterprise concept was not that popular. But we thought of trying something with this model. We saw that there are a lot of opportunities in social enterprise.
NGOs were funding different livelihoods. But once the project finishes everything comes to an end. We thought of taking over some of those communities and helping them to cater to the domestic high-end and international markets. We met, discussed, and wrote the concept in 2011.
We initially started as a farmer’s market. Farmer’s market is the easiest concept to immediately connecting rural producers and consumers together. But we were unable to get a venue in Colombo. We met some of the government officials at that time. They offered us Diyatha Uyana to start. We asked for weekends and they offered us weekdays because the place was full in the weekends. So, we started on Thursdays. After three-four months we realised how interested people were to come there. It went very well. People were talking about the Good Market. We have never done any advertising. The crowds drew in mainly through the recommendations of others.
Who are the vendors who were there at the initial stage?
The foremost initial vendors were our known contacts. From the beginning, the Good Market was a curated initiative. This means that everyone needs to go through an application and review process. And they have to meet the Good Market standards, from the beginning. Then we have done some initial reviews for our known contacts and we got 33 vendors. After five years, we now have more than 500 vendors after reviewing more than 3000 applications.
Who are some of the vendors at the Good Market now?
We have different categories. We have standards for each category. When it comes to vegetables and fruit the minimum standard is certified organic. We also have prepared food that does not use any artificial colours or flavours. It should be healthy. We are really trying to promote local produce, but these should be healthy. We also have craft items, which should definitely be good for people and the planet and also something recycled or upcycled or maybe natural. We also have cosmetics, like personal care. It should definitely be made with natural ingredients. They are not permitted to use any petroleum chemicals. We also have household items that are environmental friendly. We also have services. There are fundraising events, urban kids’ adventure programs, consumer awareness programs, and many other services. We also have renewable energy solutions and vertical garden projects. We are working with so many sectors to come up with the best options for the people and the planet. The standards are always set up in line with good for the people and planet concept.
The Good Market’s philosophy is driven by the slogan as a place that is ‘good for the people and good for the planet’. If you could elaborate on the significance of Good Market as a place for ethical producers and consumers?
Ethical means, from the beginning, we are always thinking about the environment and the society; every single vendor, when it comes to their production, customers, services, and business operations. So, the first step is filling up the application form (if they want to come to the Good Market community, they have to fill an application form). That is not easy. We assess in relation to five categories; how you are good for your community, suppliers, staff, and the environment. For instance, when it comes to the environment we ask how are you disposing your water, what is your energy and water management policy, and how are you getting good air flow to your workplace. So, for every aspect, they have to come up with something ethical.
How has the Good Market initiative benefitted rural entrepreneurs in particular?
There are a lot of success stories. There are some vendors who started with us as a start up and then after three-four years they have started their own companies, outlets, cafes and they are running their own businesses. For some people, since the beginning, this is their only income. There are many innovations that started from the Good Market that are getting very popular. And different skills development; for instance, a group of musicians who had beat boxing skills are getting very popular and they started with the Good Market.
Every week, we do a vendor’s survey on how they are getting income. They are getting really good income, even when some of the vendors only sell at the Good Market.
How has the Good Market in particular benefited women entrepreneurs?
Even when we were schooling we learnt that Sri Lanka is a developing country. It is the same today. Something needs to start from somewhere. Women’s contribution is very important for this. Even today, our remittance income comes mainly from women. I believe that women have so much capacity.
Even with myself, I am playing so many different roles, as mother, housewife, and as an entrepreneur. Women can do multiple things. You can even start a business from your home. Even at the Good Market, we have a focus on women and we are really trying to build up new start ups with women. We engage them in new opportunities and technologies. We have created a market for them. We connect these women with university students who are looking for part-time jobs to help them with these businesses. I am also involved in a program with war widows in Mannar who do basket weaving. They cannot come all the way to Colombo. We have a volunteer in Colombo who is sent by train to collect the baskets and bring to the market. This has become the main income of those women now. We have to empower women in ways that allow them to become economically independent as well as give them a voice.
What are the challenges of doing an initiative like this?
We are getting a lot of recognition from different international platforms. In particular, the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka love the Good Market concept. Because this same concept can be replicated to suit anyone’s system. We are getting very good recommendations, assistance, and encouragement from different people. But we need more support from the government. We are always running the Good Market at government venues. There are members at the UDA who are really helping us. Our presence is now very consistent at the Racecourse, Colombo. Rain or shine the Good Market is there every Saturday. Our customers know that. So, now a lot of other players think they can kick out the Good Market and set up their markets. They don’t know that this is just not a market. It is a whole concept. They have to understand this. I am really asking the government representatives to please give attention because this is something good for people. This is social enterprise. There are no shareholders. Our people and communities benefit from this.
What are the future plans for the Good Market?
We are mainly working on three areas. One is developing Good Market events. The event platform is really good, especially, for start ups and for some of the rural producers.
Then we have started a Good Market shop, which is open everyday 8am to 8pm. There are more than 80-90 vendors supplying because it is the only shop they can supply their products to.
We also have a participatory guarantee system, which is a certification system for farmers. Especially, organic farmers cannot sell without a certificate. So, we are helping them to get this certificate. We are now also ready to promote our vendors into global level. We started our online platform called goodmarket.global. Around the world, people now log into the system and they are searching about our vendors and placing orders. Also, around the world, there is a discourse on renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and eco tourism. There are so many sustainable start ups coming up. We thought that we have to get together these kind of communities into one platform via goodmarket.global. In future the Good Market hopes to be recognised as a local as well as a global initiative.
Date of Interview: 8 December 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage