In the world’s four-month battle against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, one reality remains unchanged. It has been an unequal fight with a tiny, but significantly stronger and resilient opponent.
On the frontline are health workers, with the military aiding them in Sri Lanka’s case, toiling day and night in stifling full body suits, just so someone can breathe a little more and live. Given that no country was prepared for this, their best efforts are proving inadequate. Like everywhere else, Sri Lanka too is dealing with many gaps — some new and others owing to the many fractures in society that the pre-COVID-19 world was largely indifferent to. Identifying a few immediate needs, Sri Lanka’s business sector has been pitching in.
Luxury hotels are modifying their rooms for quarantine patients and large garment manufacturers — who are about to sack some of their labour force with export prospects collapsing — are busy making face masks with part of their workforce. Meanwhile, engineers and tech solutions companies are developing robots and ventilators. Sri Lanka’s relatively small businesses are also thinking on their feet, even if it has meant diversifying into related, but not necessarily familiar terrain.
Sri Lankan authorities ordered that liquor outlets remain shut for much of the past month. There is little scope for exports as well. But the nearly-century old Rockland Distilleries, best known for its arrack, decided to give its core product a healthy twist to suit the times. The family-run business is now producing alcohol-based hand sanitisers that have an urgent demand. “So far, we have produced the equivalent of 10,000 x 700 ml bottles of Ceylon Arrack,” Amal de Silva Wijeyeratne, CEO and managing director of the company, told The Hindu. The sanitisers are being supplied to frontline health professionals and other essential workers free of charge. “We had many requests from various organisations and individuals to purchase the bottles at very high prices given the shortage of hand sanitiser, but not a single bottle was sold for commercial gain,” he said.
The company’s existing bottling plant was adapted to “ensure there was no cross contamination” with its usual arrack production. A semi-automatic filling unit was used to fill the bottles with the sanitiser alcohol that were later hand-carried to the capping and labelling line, avoiding the regular, automated line. “Our factory has been closed since the lockdown which meant staffing the production line was an issue, however we had many kind volunteers and staff who lived nearby to the distillery come forward to help manage the project,” Mr. Wijeyeratne said.
Rainco, Sri Lanka’s best-known umbrella and rainwear brand, had also closed its factory after the government imposed a near-total lockdown in March. “The pandemic caught all of us unawares,” the company’s managing director Fazal Fausz told The Hindu. But the company got several calls from those who wanted “umbrella material” for protective gear that was washable.
“We heard the need was so urgent that in some cases nurses had begun sewing masks. We sought government permission, reopened our factory, and began distributing fabric and some suits to the health sector workers and Army personnel.” Mr. Fausz said he hasn’t kept accounts of what has been distributed free of charge until now but estimates it would be worth about LKR 2 to 3 million. “It was the right thing to do at this time. It was also a way of keeping our staff motivated, they take pride in producing something that can be of use at such a crucial time.” While the company has been donating the supplies so far, more business enquiries are coming in that “down the line, it may turn into a business.”
Further, as a big question mark looms over exports, Mr. Fausz said the next three to six months are likely to set the ground for new supply chains.
Doing what businesses do best to survive and stay relevant, with the hope that they can later thrive, some are already looking at potential opportunities in this crisis. For instance, while Rainco is preparing for the monsoon months, when demand for their core products will rise, the group company — which also has businesses in outdoor shades and blinds — is keenly watching the space for what might open up for such businesses.
“Post COVID-19, our entire landscape will change. We are going to need modified entrances to buildings, and perhaps disinfectant chambers outside. This is the time for product innovation,” Mr. Fausz said.