Chanchala Gunewardena is an agri/food entrepreneur and a communications specialist. She is the founder of Kimbula Kithul, a social enterprise that is reviving traditional kithul treacle sourcing in Matara and engaging in production that preserves the natural quality of this uniquely Sri Lankan product. In this interview with Women Talk, Chanchala discusses her incredible journey as an entrepreneur, the significance of adding value to the traditional kithul industry through all natural production, how Kimbula Kithul has provided opportunities to small-holder farmers, and how her expertise in communications has inspired her to create Kimbula Kithul as a natural food brand.
What was the beginning of Kimbula Kithul and its development into an agri/food enterprise?
Kimbula Kithul started very much by accident. My mom’s side of the family is from Matara. I was looking for a way to get involved with the things that are going on in Matara but also with something that is tied into my work and expertise. I do communications, advertising and non-profit communications. I had also been seeing a lot of entrepreneurs coming up in diverse spaces. In Colombo, people were setting up their own stores, brands and technological entrepreneurships. My brother, at that time, was also doing a logistics app. I kept watching what other people were doing. I wanted to have my go at it.
I was specifically looking at Matara. Since we were young, we would get kithul from Matara. People gave you kithul, often as gifts, as something they were proud of from their area. Just over two years ago, for the first time, I questioned how good it was. I turned to my mother and I asked, ‘Why is it so good? Why is it so different from what we get in the store?’ And her answer to that seemed extremely simple. She said, ‘No sugar.’ There is no adulterating with refined sugar.
I thought this is what I am going to do. My question was that, if this is so much better, why is this not in the stores? That was the logical follow up to that. I then made the assumption that the reason that these products are not getting in the main stores was because of a branding issue. They just did not have the marketing to make themselves more sellable and accessible. I decided to go ahead and create a branding and packaging, and work on that with my advertising company. I told the designer my concept. We product tested the bottles and I thought this is done. I can put any pani (treacle) from Matara I want in it and I can just give this brand away. Anyone who wanted to do Matara pani and wanted to put it in a nicer packaging could have this. The brand was supposed to be gifted away. I just did not know enough and I did not want the hassle.
But then, I tried to use it for a family almsgiving. When we tried sourcing our first batch to bottle for the occasion we ran into problems with pure kithul’s natural tendency to bubble up on bottling while cooled. At that point we didn’t understand that this was normal and not a ferment, and we also didn’t know how to control it, especially in a natural way which was important to us. So at that time I was uncertain, and I just had to step back and question whether we are going to forget about this. And then I calmed down. And, then we made the decision, actually, to learn about this. Instead of abandoning it at that point, I tried to ask questions. That’s how we found our way forward.
What did you learn in the process?
We got a lot of anecdotal evidence and different people have worked with kithul. They know a lot about it, mainly from observation and from their interaction with the product, but not so scientifically. Then we also reached out to the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and we asked them about the science behind kithul. There is a bridge in between what the scientists know and what the tappers and the suppliers who work in this industry for a long time know. I think they are equally valuable. What they need though is to find a middle ground where their knowledge is useful to each other. While these groups have interacted with each other before, there is enough gaps in the ground knowledge to understand the conversations need to continue.
We started learning about it. When I kept learning about it, I realised that, if I am doing all this, maybe I will have to be more involved. I realised that I could not gift something away if the brand came back to me. What if someone went and put a bad pani in a bottle that had our label? I then, suddenly, realised the gravitas of the fact that I was the one who should take any criticisms. If I wanted to do this, I have to have ownership and be able to vouch for what is going on.
Sometimes there is this weird entrepreneurial logic where if everyone is saying no then you should be saying yes. May be there is something here that people are not seeing. I started realising that a lot of business people who are more business savvy than I am had been looking into it and they have kind of crunched the numbers and they decided to refrain. That is because I think they were crunching the numbers and thinking about it in one particular way – the way that kithul has been thought about for a long time. I am not the numbers girl. So, I said forget the numbers. What do I think of the potential of this product and are there avenues that people have not thought about? That has been our approach. Forget the traditional expectations of what kithul can do, what new spaces can we create for this?
What is the story behind the brand and the name Kimbula, the crocodile, and your product Kithul treacle?
Kimbula relates to the fact that this is supposed to be Matara where it is localised. I gave that framework of focusing on Matara, firstly, because of the family connection we have. But, also, because I think the lesson of Google, at least in the initial stages, that it is good be known for being good at one thing, and have focus and a good sense of expectation. The Nilwala River in Matara is well-know for its crocodiles, or kimbulas. It was this strange mascot. I was trying to think about iconic mascots as well, like the Kellogg’s mascot. I was thinking how can this be done in a way that can also be made friendly and elegant even, because our bottle has an elegance. The crocodile adds a sweetness and a niceness to it. He is a friendly guy. It has been fun and it has given us a lot to play with. The designer did this amazing thing. In our bottle, the kimbula is in the front and the idea is that the kithul, you can see from the sides, is like the water – the swamp that he is in. When you flip over the bottle, we have a tapper going up the tree because we want to talk about the people who do this. It was important to us. The idea is that the brown of the kithul then forms the bark of the tree. The designer Gimhani and the creative director at Bates did this gorgeous concept. The both of them discussed and came up with this beautiful visual realization of this concept. I love it.
What is the process of producing a social enterprise brand like Kimbula, from sourcing the ingredients to making it into a finished product?
We go with the simplest version of this from tree to bottle. We have the most uncomplicated process. That is because, right now, the focus is to understand and work with the natural product. We do not add preservatives. That does add interesting things that we learnt along the way – how do we care for this product and how do we show customers that we care for this product in its natural status. This bubbling, the oxidisation of the top layer, is a natural process. That is something we learned about and now we are learning about how do we control that naturally.
From the start, the important thing is, to this day, that we are working with small holder farmers. We started with a strict community development project. We have also now started going to suppliers. We work with suppliers who are committed to getting pure kithul. They are also buying from small holder farmers. Most people thought, for you to do a label like this, you needed to come with the backing of owning an estate. But, I did not have any of that. That was one of the reasons we almost thought we could not do this.
We were trying to figure out who do we work with. At that time, through various connections, the Sevalanka Foundation came up. They had an old project that they had stopped. This project had ties with the Good Market. Dr Amanda Kiessel is the co-founder of Good Market. When Amanda first came to Sri Lanka she was working with the Sevalanka Foundation. That was one of the first projects she had done. She was excited about bringing back one of her first projects. In fact Good Market is a strong tie for us. We previewed our product at their market last December. And we cannot say enough about Achala Samaradiwakara who herself has advised and encouraged us all the way.
You have the small holder farmers and their families. It is mostly the man who is a tapper. The tapper goes up a tree a maximum of four times, and often it is four times, because there is a strict schedule on which they collect sap. They have to also go there to get as much sap as possible but without over-draining the flower at a certain time. That is a lot of hard work. That often includes night climbs and sometimes in the rain. They collect a thing called thelijja. This is the flower sap of the kithul plant. They bring that home and, at the home, it becomes a family process where they spend several hours boiling down this thelijja to form the treacle that we see. It is literally an act of boiling that creates this naturally sweet caramelized golden product. At the farmer level, that is where it ends.
At the farmer level, they do not have scientific instruments. There have been interventions from the research, academic and public sector in giving certain tools to them. I think some of them are more about increasing the yield of the flower. There is controversy about whether that is a good thing to do because you can over pull from the flower. Sometimes they give knives and pots. But interestingly, thermometers are basic things that are not there.
When we buy kithul, we look at a Brix reading. We use the Brix reading, as a basic method and there are other meters that we will like to add. From the Brix reading, we make an initial gauge of whether we buy the kithul or not. Time is really sensitive. We need to act quick to keep it from fermenting. If it has not been boiled enough, we have to boil on the day of collecting. Our collectors will re-boil and then we re-filter. And then, the ideal situation is that we bottle at that time.
Currently, because we are working with small holder farmers and because we are gauging our retail space, we have been bottling it in Colombo. So, how this plays into it is that it cools down. Sometimes you have to reheat it or sometimes when it cools down is when the initial bubbling starts. This is a challenge that we are trying to combat. The problem is we cannot bottle in Matara yet because we are not big enough in scale to set up something full time there. We have found some new good suppliers. The next step is to talk to larger outlets. It is a huge balance between supply and demand. When I have that, then I can make investments. It is because we were able to start it in such a smaller way that I have been able to manage this right now through personal small investments from my end. I have shown that you do not have to be a big player to get into this but you have to do a lot more work too. But things have to align, which has been good.
If you could elaborate on the benefits that Kimbula Kithul has had on the rural economy and communities from where the product is sourced?
Mostly, it is the man who goes up the tree but the boiling and all of the making of kithul often becomes a family affair. The women are not solely in the kitchen. The man who taps it also is very much involved in how it is fired and how it is taken care of. The woman is also sometimes the business person of the operation. She manages price decisions and sale decisions. That is a really interesting dynamic. Between them, they hold a lot of interesting anecdotal knowledge. That is where there is an incredible amount of community value and respect that should come to this industry.
The main thing that we do by reviving the industry is providing a second stream of livelihood. Treacle depends on weather conditions and on who is buying and how much. It is a supplementary livelihood. Small holder farmers do not have a lot of trees in their gardens. They will have about 3-5. They cannot live off this fulltime. If the timing is not right, they cannot always tap it. We have multiple farmers we work with. By reviving this and with the first project we started we created a second livelihood and a supplementary economic stream for these families.
The industry has not focused on purists. It has been working with adulterated kithul. The farmers had pride. Often, these are heritage farmers. There is a farmer that we work with who is an award winning farmer. Farmers know that, if they don’t do it, the person that buys kithul from them or the shop that they go to sell their product will often add water and to mass the dilution taste they will add sugar. Now, there are people, not only us but also essentially competing brands. This is good. It is not like a competition because we are putting that message out there in small ways that there is value for the natural product.
When we met some of our farmers recently, I told them that the difference is when they sell to us is what I buy is what I sell. When you sell to someone else, you know this is true, it is often messed with. They liked the fact that we valued the real product. In essence, that is why we do it in the first place. I think giving back and instilling a sense of value into their work and to what they trade us has been another important thing of going back and doing it this way.
What does it mean for you to create Kimbula Kithul as a social enterprise?
This dance of doing this as a social enterprise is so interesting and tough. For me, the initial premise was, could there be a way to increase economically or in value what these communities have? Can we really re-instill the value in this heritage of ours? We have this incredible thing but we are messing with it. It was exciting to do this, as a social enterprise. It was better for us that way. I was not going to do it, if I had to think about it in the business math. I probably would not have done it. To know that we are engaging with a project that is creating a second livelihood stream for the communities has been really worth it.
When we work with people in the community development sector, in the end, I still do retail and marketing. There is a business side to it. When we work with our partners, let’s say they are doing it in a community development fashion, often they then do not have the business background. It is important for something to be socially good and give back but you need to have that enterprise side to it to be successful in it. You cannot sustain any good you want to do socially or any impact you want to have socially if you cannot also think about basic business decisions. As we have extended to suppliers, their main outlook has been business but often they are more impactful because the value-add is still coming from the fact that we are reinforcing a need for pure kithul while we think about how to communicate with this community and keep the industry running as a business. They get stuck when they think only of this as a social good. They think they can do this on and off, when they are feeling like it. When you bring the business aspect into it, you are driven in two good ways. You are driven to think about efficiency and organising. That in the end, help you do more social work. That is why I think people like the concept of ‘it is not charity, it is social enterprise’. There is a good that comes off from also doing something that still can support itself. It is sustainable and it feeds its own thing. This does something positive.
Kimbula Kithul is a familiar stall at the Good Market, Colombo, held at the Colombo Racecourse every Saturday and also the Good Market shop in Colombo has your products available at their premises. What is the significance of a social enterprise platform like the Good Market for your product?
What Good Market does is really valuable because they create a pretty low-cost affordable barrier of entry into the market place, for you to take your ideas and put it to work. That is an amazing thing that they do. You do not even have to get a full stall; you can get half of a stall. If you know ideas and you know people, you can even collaborate with a stall. I love that the spectrum of businesses there represents a lot of different places and social strata in this country. Everyone is there and they are able to see if something works. I think that was one of the big reasons why we wanted to go with Good Market. It worked for so many people.
I really liked that we could have a chance to see if we float or don’t, without a huge cost impact. I love the market the way it is. You engage with your client first hand. Right then and there you get to see what is working for you. It is actually a really good product testing site, if you can communicate and observe. It is like a scientific school of research. There are so many inspiring people in that area with you can then build other things.
This week – it is something I have been trying make happen for a while – we launched the idea of Kimbula Kiri. It is something I wanted to do because it is a great balance – kiri (curd) and pani (treacle). I do not have the bandwidth to do this on my own because I am still doing this and another job. So, I spoke to Good Market and found this really good curd maker. We are making those networks and what I am bringing to what the supplier is doing is a different sense of branding and marketing, to an audience that he is not. It helps us develop partnerships. He is bringing this incredible product. I bought his curd and I will not do something if I am not a fan. I do kithul because I like the kithul we are doing. I try every bottle we buy. There are some days that I am far happier than others. But if I am not happy, it does not get the label.
The curd has been a really good product. I know he had a product that has been already going and I suggested to look at a different revenue stream. The Good Market has been really helpful when I have been looking at packaging ideas as well. I walk around the stalls and I see someone else doing what I want and I talk to them about collaborating. There are a lot of ways in which this ecosystem can help the people who are part of it.
Achala and Amanda’s approach to social entrepreneurship, their years of experiences of working on the ground through Sevalanka as well and through other projects that they were doing, their research and all of that is an immense asset to anyone who wants to go start at the Good Market. If you can talk to Achala and Amanda and pick their brains, they are so forthcoming and so helpful. Achala has been so available and I am so thankful.
You are also the Events and Digital Communications Specialist at Bates Strategic Alliance in Sri Lanka. You have a Master’s Degree in Professional Communication and a Bachelor in English from Clark University, Massachusetts, USA and recently won two local Cannes and Spikes Creativity competitions to compete internationally. If you could tell us about your work in the communications and advertising field and how that links up with your work as a social entrepreneur?
I think it linked up perfectly when we were looking at what project to take on. When I go to Matara I see so many entrepreneurs at home doing home businesses. There was this incredible mother I met who has two kids doing handwork at home. It got me thinking what is the gap that is keeping her from taking this forward? And, often, it is communications related. It is about design, branding, packaging, being able to say what she is doing, the value of what she is doing – to communicate that to the customer, sometimes it is language. The ideal combo is where the Colombo Design Market work with the National Crafts Council, or when Good Market does workshops. We took the Good Market team to Matara and they did a session where they talked about the different businesses and taught about branding showing what businesses at the Market had been able to do. I think communications is a larger piece but advertising and marketing tied in with talented home entrepreneurs is a huge link to helping successful things happen. I am hugely dependent on the talent and the product of the tappers. But also what we bring to the table is that we are telling their story. We are branding them so that there is a higher sense of value into the product.
What made you go into the field of communications and advertising?
It was sort of accidental. I was doing literature in school. I have always liked Lit. I like writing a lot. When I find something I love to read it feels like something for my soul. I went to College and I took one literature class, and this is where it becomes accidental is that my advisor was Head of the Department. She said, ‘You are good. Why don’t you do this?’. So, I started going down that path, despite having so many options to choose from. It was naturally inclined to it that I did well. I did not question it for a long time. I added a minor in political science and later thought that I should have done this as well.
I also learned in college that sometimes you should do things at that you are not going to be good at. Not doing well but wanting to still do something is a good sense. You may be willing to struggle and learn or there may be a passion there. I kind of went with something towards that I had a natural inclination. I went to a Liberal Arts college and I got a package of tools where I learned that communication is a broad area, which has helped me to jump into a lot of things. The liberal arts thinking and communication has helped me try my hand at a plethora of things, just having that as the background.
I would add that the creative freedom, but also then the sharpening creative tools and perimeters you can learn practicing it with a field is really exciting. This year I started getting into competitions – which is a bit late as I by age this is the last year I qualify for the ‘young’ category apparently! – and they’ve been great teaching moments. There’s limited time, fixed expectations and a challenge to thing big and unexpectedly. Winning them has allowed me the opportunity to go to the international competitions and conferences and see how even bigger we could be thinking here. I wish more clients too would go for these and then challenge us to, and embrace us when we give them big ideas, or moving or non-traditional ones.
You also served as the Career Development Center Director and then Country Representative of the Asian University for Women. If you could tell us about your work with AUW and how this contributes to women’s education in the region?
I lived in Bangladesh for two years. I was ending this one-year study visa in the US. I was looking for jobs and I came across this. There was a fellowship program and I got offered to go in as a political science fellow. In my resume, I had a bit more work experience than some of the others. I had a Master’s and one-year work experience with Amnesty International. The University said that I could also work at the career development centre. I started working in that department. There was a new Vice Chancellor and she liked a lot of my ideas for it, and the basic things I was putting in place because there was a lot that had not been put in place. Within two and a half weeks of me being there, they were waiting to hire someone and that person was not coming because a lot of people are not willing to move to Bangladesh. But I was there. The Vice Chancellor liked what I did. Suddenly, I had this job running the centre with one other colleague. It was very unexpected and funny, and made us all laugh but I think I also held up my end of the commitment and showed it was a good decision in the end.
In that role, my recent experience of being out of college and job hunting myself turned out to be a big asset. I essentially had very recent first-hand knowledge of that of what these students were going to face, and I knew full-well the struggles of explaining liberal arts value particularly in a South Asian context. My own year of job hunting and going through various experiences was hugely valuable to me in telling them not to do something, or that this is what is going to happen and it is going to be okay. I also think that I am really good when I am fighting or supporting other people. If I believe in something or someone, I will champion them. I think that is a strength and it was very easy to want to champion and talk about these women and all their talents. When I went for these meetings, it was not a trouble for me to say that these are incredible young women and you should believe in their potential. We also had other things prepared. I learnt how to match the right person for the right job. We worked with first generation college students. Often no one in their family has gone to a university before, especially an English-speaking one. Our students represent the breadth of the region – South, South East, Central Asia, Syria, and Palestine. This is the first time you had this combination together. For a lot of these students, they did not have an example in the family of what it was like to work in these new jobs they were going into, as field researchers, office-based researchers and interns. They did not have a model. There were really interesting things that you could not predict come out from that.
You had to have all these conversations not only from a career development point but stuff my-mother-taught-me kind of thing. For my Bangladeshi students, who are often Muslim, who have Ramadan, if they got a job or internship in Korea, the Koreans are very food-oriented. We would have to figure out how to discuss with the companies that if she is not eating during fasting period or she is eating but she won’t eat pork that is not an insult to you. We also have to explain to the young women how they could communicate this. There were people taking flights for the first time in their lives. You go to countries where alcohol is there. You have to have this conversation that, if there is alcohol at a work event, how do you want to engage with this. There were a lot of things involved in career development. I loved it. And, all of those girls are so much more. They are so driven. They are so talented. Sometimes when I am questioning myself I keep thinking that I have not even had half of that challenge. So, go for it.
Speaking of challenges, what are the challenges that are there for you as a social entrepreneur, working with a traditional product but also trying to take that to high end markets?
One challenge is the industry itself. We are now disclosing these things to our customers. We are conversing and sharing. We have this thing called Kimbula Katha on my Instagram where we tell the stories about the things that we are seeing. In the industry, the main challenge has been how refined sugar has gotten in and what do we do about it. I really like a mixed-up world. I love when cultures and different people come together. But when it comes to kithul, I am a purist. This is where we have to draw this line. There is so much potential in this product in its natural form, its natural sugar, its natural colours and all the environmental things that happen with it. When we add refined sugar to standardise the taste we are not exploring the immense potential.
A big challenge of that is trying to change this long standing issue in this industry while being a small player. A bigger player making this decision will have much more immediate impact because of the quantity they are buying. They will have a huge impact down the line. That said, this is not something that is the responsibility of the tapper, seller, supplier or the company alone. Because it goes all the way to the top. If we buy kithul with sugar, we reinforce that there is a place for this in the market.
The cost of course I know though is a factor. This is anyway a low yield, low supply market. But because pure kithul is now like a niche within a niche, it is going to be expensive at the beginning. Until the industry turns around, it is not scalable. And even for us, finding a way to make this product accessible with local pricing while still dealing with how expensive this product is, as a pure product, is a challenge. We know at the beginning therefore this will not be a mass market product. Therefore, we also cannot pass that blame but if you can afford to try pure kithul, whether it is from us or a competitor, if you can support a brand that supports the revival of this pure kithul industry, buy it because it helps us get the messaging across that there is a space for this and hopefully that messaging will then grow.
We know that the reality is that the cost of living means that we cannot expect the mass market to suddenly start supporting pure kithul. It is not a necessary product. So, it becomes a luxury product. That is one big industry reality that we find. It is also challenging. We can get both. The product that we are buying can be bought at the same price by someone else who does not do pure kithul. We try to pay a good price but when you are not working with pure kithul price does not matter because you can buy it at whatever price and still put water to increase your quantities. We cannot do that. We cannot match that. We can do our best to give a fair price but we cannot outcompete someone who can make more out of little. That is a big industry-related challenge on the social entrepreneurship side of it.
We are doing our best to stay in business and through that do something positive by giving a revenue stream that is traditional and doing pure kithul. That is saying that there is value in this product. Once we have our legs underneath this we would love to think of other ways. I am definitely interested if there can be a partnership between the public sector – the government and the private sector and the research institutes and interventions in kithul. The knowledge of the ITI and then our place in the market and see if we can actually do a project together to increase some of the best practices in the industry. That is one way that we would like to give back rather than giving things away but also think about if the government is giving subsidised things to kithul farmers what is the best use of that. They have programs and we would love to work with them.
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Date of Interview: 17 October 2018
Interviewer and photos of Chanchala: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage
Photos from the field provided by ©Chanchala Gunewardena