Sarojini Nirmalakumar

“It is better if there are women working in the banks. They understand us better.”

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Sarojini Nirmalakumar, 45 Sri Lanka Storyline

45 year old Sarojini is a Sri Lankan entrepreneur who processes coconut husks for the building industry. Her business produces coconut chips from the husks, which are made into bricks by another company and then exported to China for the building industry.

Business success seemed far from Sarojini’s reach as a child. She grew up in extreme poverty and every day was a struggle. She explains: “I was very happy growing up, but we faced a lot of hardships.” Her father used to travel to India on business, and one day he never returned.  Her mother struggled to make ends meet with her four children. The family was so desperate for food that when the neighbours gave them rice gruel to wash their clothes with, they ate it. But Sarojini’s entrepreneurial spirit grew as she tried to find ways to make money. In the evenings after school she used the moonlight to make small packets out of newspaper, which she sold the next morning to groundnut sellers. The need to work was so great that she stopped school early and started to work.

Later, when Sarojini was married with three children, her husband had an accident which left him in a coma for four months. It was a period of great despair for Sarojini. She was so desperate for money that she pawned her house and jewellery. She spiralled into debt and was unable to repay her lenders. She lost the property and was forced to re-locate the family.    

After the relocation, Sarojini knew she had to seize the opportunity to make a new start and she got a job through the Government preparing cement blocks - her first insight into the building industry. Her husband began to recover and helped her to come up with a new business idea. At the time he was a driver transporting coconuts, where he saw how coconut chips are produced. The couple secured a charitable grant for a coconut chip making machine, but also needed further funds to run, maintain and house the machine. Sarojini’s family and friends discouraged her from taking out a loan without security, but she wouldn’t give up on her business vision. She explains: 

“I went to six or seven different banks, one after the other, requesting a loan. First of all they asked for assets or a property and two guarantors, but I didn’t have that. When I tried to deal with male bank managers they couldn’t understand what I had been through and I wasn’t comfortable openly discussing our poverty with them. They would casually say to me ‘amma (ma’am) we aren’t giving out any more loans’.

I was wandering without any income for nearly five months. I was frustrated and had almost given up. But I thought I would just try this one last bank. I went without any hope of getting a loan. But when I went there it turned out that the bank manager was a woman. She could clearly see that I was a real business woman, employing other women and running a good business. So I got the loan I needed! It is better if there are women working in the banks. They understand us better.”

Sarojini used the loan to purchase more coconut husks and built a temporary shed to house her machinery. Thanks to training, support and further funding from CARE and its partner Chrysalis, Sarojini has now been able to build a permanent structure from which she now runs her business. 

Her business continues to grow and she now employs seven other women who, like her, have faced significant challenges in their lives. Sarojini’s own children are also helping with the business. She is not only able to support her own family, but is now enabling other women to work so that they can feed and educate their own children. 

When she is asked about the secret to her success, Sarojini has one clear answer: “Self-confidence.”

Her ambition now is to expand the business into making end-products from the coconut chips so that she can employ more women from her community. 

She adds: “My wish is that my business remains stable and sustainable. I want my girls (employees) to grow in confidence and I want to provide jobs for more unemployed people and make them feel proud.”

Sarojini’s concluding advice to the banks is clear: “Employ more women.”