Making a mark - Charitha Abeyratne

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By 2017-11-05

By Menaka Indrakumar

Founder and Chief Executive of Saraii Village, Charitha Abeyratne speaks to Glamour about how a college project turned into a successful business venture, living her dream, empowering communities, business, health food and taking every day as it comes. She has been recognized for her work in rural community development and was awarded the Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015 and Zonta Woman Achiever in 2017.

What inspired you to start Saraii Village?

The idea for setting up Saraii stemmed from my time with Saaraketha Organics. We worked with rural farming communities, empowering them to adopt sustainable methods of cultivation and produce a range of certified organic products. We also facilitated access to international and non-traditional markets.

Speaking to these farming communities I felt that they aspired to do something more with their lives and definitely wanted their children to be more enterprising. However, they did not have the means to think beyond agriculture.

This made me wonder how I can support these rural communities with additional revenue sources. It was this thought that led us to focus on eco/agro tourism. I envisioned setting up eco villages that showcased Sri Lankan culture, traditions, and unique cuisine, through community interactions, along with unique accommodation.

How has the village expanded?

Saraii is now a tourist destination, which promotes 'sustainable' tourism. We enable guests to experience the 'true essence of Sri Lanka in its unadulterated form.' We offer guests an opportunity to enjoy and immerse themselves in a truly authentic, community based, 'Sri Lankan' experience.

Saraii Village started with just a couple of tree houses and mud chalets, but has now extended to 11 tree houses and mud chalet units that can accommodate up to 60 people. We also have an organic fusion restaurant called 'Spice Lounge' that uses locally sourced produce and serves authentic Sri Lankan cuisine with a Western twist, made by local artisans. We serve an amazing array of organic and Biodynamic wines at our restaurant and our creative snacks are delightful.

With popular demand from our guests, we have added on a Salt Water Pool, a unique feature for this region.
The most exciting aspect is the expansion of Saraii's community-based experiences. Saraii has crafted many new local excursions that give revenue back to the community. From lunch with local famer families that practise organic farming, to fishing with local fishermen that adhere to sustainable fishing practices, pottery making and palmyrah weaving with local artisans, buffalo curd making and much more.

What was it like to win Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 award?

Winning the two awards affirm my belief that I am indeed contributing to and making a mark in Sri Lanka's tourism sector. The recognition builds more confidence within me to do better and inspires me to keeping thinking big and to know that anything is possible in life, only if you believe in yourself and no task is impossible if you work hard at it.
You have created many jobs around the area, comment.

In keeping with our sustainable tourism philosophy, almost 85% of the employees at Saraii are from the local community. Most of the team had no hospitality training, but has gained training on-the-job and is now able to service both local and foreign clientele.
We continuously provide training to our team in-house with industry experts, such as Srilal Miththapala and training schools such as Harpos' School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

I am also proud of the fact that Saraii has a very strong female representation in the management team. We believe in empowering women in the workforce and giving equal opportunity at all levels!

Did you ever think your MBA project would be this successful?

No I honestly didn't...
I pitched the idea of Saraii to the faculty and colleagues of my university, (Colorado State University) and got their buy-in and proceeded to set it up.

After a few months into implementation, in the face of real life challenges like scouting for locations, obtaining approvals, having our great marketing strategies shot down by experienced industry professionals, the hands-on requirements of building the infrastructure from ground up, my team did not want to continue with the project, as they did not see the vision and impact that I saw. But my passion and commitment was so strong that I decided to go it on my own.

With all the hiccups that I faced initially, sometimes the dream of actually running this operation did not feel like a reality. But with perseverance and never taking no for an answer, we made it happen.

What made you change from IT to Business?

I decided to follow Information Technology for my BSc purely because I wanted to do something new... and also because a good friend said that I may not be able to handle it. I wanted to prove to myself that I can do anything that I set my mind to.
I didn't know anything about IT. I didn't even have an email address at the time. After one year of Computer Science and another year of Software Engineering, I decided that was enough of IT and that hardcore IT was not for me. I switched to Business Information Technology, where the focus was more on how IT can be applied successfully in a business setting.

Looking back, I know this was a great decision I made and I need to thank my professors who pushed and encouraged me to make this switch. I graduated with a first class honours.

Armed with my BSc in Business Information Technology, I joined Virtusa Corp, but I didn't enjoy my work! I then joined an interesting company called Roomsnet International, which was an online accommodation supplier! I loved my time at this company, and this was the only experience I've ever had in marketing/selling hotel accommodation, before Saraii! Although it was a shift from IT to Business, I feel that I utilized most of the skills I learned in different parts of my journey and I wouldn't have it any other way!
Saraii is one of the most exotic tree houses in the world, comment.

Saraii is very unique and exotic! Everything we have implemented at Saraii has a meaning behind it. Our 'Mud Chalets' are modelled after rural homes, using wattle and daub! The ingenious building concepts of the ancients combined with the rustic simplicity of village living.

The 'Tree Houses' are modelled after their watch huts! Rooms without walls, nested high above an emerald canopy. This is not experience - this is exhilaration.

Our tree houses are made of all up-cycled and recycled materials. The flooring of the tree houses are discarded railroad ties, furniture is made out of discarded lamp post pillars, seating made out of discarded tires, etc... The earth is our foundation; the environment our designer. Every nook and cranny tells a story of eco-conscious endeavour – a story we continue to write each day.
Saraii was listed as one of the 'Top 10 Most Extraordinary Tree Top Hotels in the World' by TripAdvisor in 2014 and 2015 consecutively because of our unique concept and excellent reviews.

Your company introduced organic products to the country, comment.
Right from the beginning Saaraketha's philosophy has been simple. We believe food is best grown by people who are passionate about good health and earth-friendly agriculture.
Saaraketha Organics began this journey over 8 years ago to grow and nurture these farmers and bring them together with those who appreciate and invest in real, farm fresh food without toxins.

Over the years we have grown this family to an island-wide network that now empowers and feeds thousands. We were in the fray long before 'organic' became a buzz word and we are excited about our growing future.

Do you think we are organically conscious?

I believe that people are now more aware of the importance of eating healthy and we see a growth in the demand for organic products. Good, clean, ethical food is a fundamental right of all and Saaraketha strives to give people this accessibility.
We launched in Sri Lanka, with just a small retail space on Ward Place, but today we have expanded to a Home Delivery Service and branded products are available on the shelves of leading super markets, along with curated markets like the Good Market, which shows the unquestionable increased demand for organic produce.

Saaraketha continues to come up with solutions that cater to all levels of society, the busy mom who wants to give her kids healthy, nutritious food, to the young professional looking for organic solutions to keep fit and for those with ailments who would like to switch to a healthy lifestyle.

How unique is Saaraketha?

Saaraketha Organic deals with 'certified' organic produce. With Saaraketha, consumers are guaranteed that what they are purchasing is free of chemicals and harmful pesticides. Our range of products include fresh fruit, vegetables, greens, grains, heirloom rice, spices, virgin coconut oil, kithul treacle and wild bee honey.

The most unique aspect of a Saaraketha product is its 'Traceability.' All our products have a history and a story before it reaches the customer's door. In keeping with our belief that food should remain inspiring and delightful, we make sure our farmers, and all our producers understand and practice the stringent steps of each regulation we adhere to. A customer will always be able to know where their food came from, who grew it and whose life they are impacting.

Saaraketha has practiced, pioneered and customized an organic production system that combines the best of traditional knowledge with the strict standards of international organic agriculture.

Over the years, we have learnt there are no shortcuts to ensuring the health of our soil, our water, our biodiversity and our farmers. The standard simply supports our longstanding vision that this is the future of farming and is worth fighting for.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Well I'm never a fan of planning head. Plans evolve daily, and we adjust and readjust. I would like to say that in 10 years I would like to have a chain of eco lodges in Sri Lanka and regionally, where Saraii is 'THE' brand for anyone who would like to experience 'responsible travel.' I would like to have made a positive impact on local communities and empower many locals, especially women!

Which business personality inspires you?

Internationally; Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, who started her company with just a 5000 USD of seed money, an idea, pure passion and drive.

Locally, I admire Linda Speldewinde (the visionary founder of AOD). I really admire how well she manages all her ventures while ensuring a work-life balance.

Will you want start up another village?

The grand plan for Saraii is to expand its footprint across the country and regionally. We are now at a stage of looking out for like-minded investors who would like to come on board with us.

I envision being able to create a sustainable travel trail that can cater to new age travellers who want to experience all that a location has to offer! From culture, traditions, unique food, environment, etc... The locations will not all be 'Tree Houses' and 'Mud Chalets' but something unique and creative!

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