Despite its natural beauty, Uva Province is one of the least developed areas of Sri Lanka,
with among the lowest levels of income, education and investment. The sponsors of Amba Estate
chose to invest in the project precisely in order to create a model of economic opportunity and
environmental restoration in this corner of Sri Lanka. To this end, everything we do at Amba is designed
to improve local livelihoods, while protecting the environment.
The fundamental mission of Amba Estate is to create increased economic opportunities for
the people of Ambadandegama, through bringing tourists to the valley and developing higher value products
to export from the valley. As a business, we create jobs, raise incomes and, as far as possible,
source our goods and services from within the local community. We also support a number of initiatives
to improve livelihoods in the valley, including English teaching and exchanges, medical visits,
donations of computers, toys and clothing, and sponsoring community events and families in need.
Amba's other fundamental goal is to protect and restore the environment in and around the Estate.
In many parts of Sri Lanka, deforestation, poor land management, and excessive use of agro-chemicals
is leading to erosion, flooding, habitat loss and heightened levels of kidney and liver disease and other ailments.
Everything we do at Amba is therefore designed to minimise our impact on the environment,
while restoring natural habitats and eco-systems.
Promoting mental well-being
Another initiative is our partnership with the Mulleriyawa Halfway Home for women recovering for mental illness at the National Institute of Mental Health. The ladies of Mulleriyawa make some of the packaging for Amba’s products, and we have sponsored a number of awareness-raising and fund-raising initiatives for the Home.
Creating employment and raising incomes
Since we started investing to rejuvenate Amba Estate, the direct economic impact has already been significant.
When we started investing in the farm in 2007, 12 people were employed on the farm and the standard wage was
less than $1.20 per day: total take-home pay for most of the workers was less than $20 per month.
Today, with the increased opportunities created by our on-site tea-making, tourism and other activities,
Amba directly employs almost 50 full-time managers, supervisors and workers and regularly hires additional workers
on a contract basis for construction projects, seasonal farm work and so on. We estimate that almost
100 local families now earn their primary income from Amba.
At the same time, we have increased base wage by over 800% and introduced a range of bonuses
and overtime opportunities. Most significantly, in 2008 (long before the business was breaking even)
we introduced a 10% revenue share, whereby 10% of all revenues are paid as a bonus which is shared
between employees, over and above their regular wages, overtime and productivity bonuses.
As a result, total take-home pay for our full-time workers is now in the range of $200-$400 per month
– more than a ten-fold increase in little over 10 years.
Amba’s total direct economic impact on the valley (our total spend on local employees, seasonal workers, outgrowers, construction workers, craftsmen, handicraft-suppliers, etc) has risen from less than $300 per month to over $20,000 per month.
In addition, wherever possible, we source goods and services for the farm and the guesthouse from local suppliers
within the community. We buy fruit, vegetables, eggs and other supplies for the guesthouse from local smallholders,
and we pay premium prices to local outgrowers to help supply the extra greenleaf and coffee cherries,
lemongrass shoots and butterfly-pea flowers that we need for our tea-making and coffee-processing operations.
Village ladies roast and grind our coffee-beans and dry our peppercorns and other spices. Wherever possible,
we engage local contractors, carpenters and stone-masons to execute construction projects around the estate.
Most of the furniture is made by local carpenters, our fabrics come from a local handloom coop,
and local seamstresses make most of our soft-furnishings, as well as our shopping bags and other packaging.
We also encourage our neighbours to set up their own businesses to supply Amba and to benefit from
the increased number of tourists visiting the valley. In 2018, with the support of the Planeterra Foundation
(the non-profit foundation of G Adventures, one of the tour agencies who send regular groups of guests to Amba),
we set up the Six-Stars Chutney Cooperative. We selected 6 of Amba’s best tea-pickers to be the founding members
of the cooperative, as a recognition of their critical contribution. Each of the ladies received a complete set of
equipment and training so that they could start producing a range of chutneys, pickles and other preserves
to be sold to visitors, utilizing the multitude of fruits and vegetables which grow in the area. With their own equipment,
the ladies (and their family members) are able to produce chutneys from the comfort of their own home
during their free-time and further supplement their incomes. In addition, Rs.10 from each jar of chutney sold
goes back into the coop’s core fund, with the plan that this will finance additional sets of equipment
so more ladies can join the cooperative, as demand grows.
In collaboration with another coffee-roaster based in Colombo, we recently set up the Ella Coffee Collective,
with support from MDF, a program funded by Australian Aid to develop promising local value-chains in Sri Lanka.
The Collective has set up the first “wet-processing” station for coffee cherries in this part of Sri Lanka.
The idea is that more local farmers will increase their incomes by planting and harvesting coffee cherries,
now that they have a local facility where they can sell their cherries directly, without having to invest
time and effort in dry-processing the cherries. The collective has only been operating for a few months,
but already we are purchasing more than 1000kg of cherries from local farmers every month.
We are also encouraging everyone in the village to make different handicrafts which can be sold in the Amba farm-shop
– these range from wooden walking sticks and boxes, to sisal coasters and hand-bags, to recycled-sari bags,
to greeting cards and key rings. Others are harvesting and processing the wild-bee honey and forest-grown kithul treacle which we sell in the shop. Over time, we hope to seed many more village-owned enterprises around the valley
– we hope that local young people will set up their own rental and guiding enterprises (for mountain biking,
horse-back riding and so on) and we hope other families will set up business to supply other artisanal products
to the thousands of tourists who visit Amba every year – natural dyes, essential oils, etc.
One of our aims is to act as a model for other local farmers and small businesses – to show them how,
without major capital investment or fancy technology, they can increase their incomes by developing
their own value-added products and experiences, while preserving the local environment. Unlike most businesses,
we want others to copy us! We have already signed training and marketing agreements with 2 other
small organic tea estates and provided training and guidance as they develop their own range of artisanal products.
Both estates are now successfully producing their own hand-made teas, which we sell in the Amba shop.
We are in discussion with the Ministry of Plantation Industries and the Sri Lanka Tea Board about a program
to scale up and roll out this training and marketing to other smallholders around the country.
We have also provided advice and support to 4 local families in Ambadandegama on the design and launch of
their own homestay accommodation and guesthouses. Three of these guesthouses are now operational and,
whenever our own accommodation is full, we recommend to guests to try booking at these neighbouring properties.
Beyond local employment, materials and services, we also try to source all of our materials and equipment
from within Sri Lanka. When we first started equipping our tea and herb processing facility, we were told that
we would have to import our mini tea-roller and mini-drier from China. However, we persisted in our search and
eventually found two local engineering firms who built us custom-made equipment, using specs from
a local tea-production expert. In so doing, not only do we generate direct revenues for local companies,
but we also hope to stimulate local skills and sow the seeds for future industry clusters. Both companies are
now planning to use these products as prototypes to begin selling similar equipment
to other small-scale agro-processors in Sri Lanka.
Improving community livelihoods
Beyond our direct business impact, we have also started a number of initiatives to improve livelihoods
and promote community integration.
Early on, we helped to host a group of volunteers from the UK who ran a special 2-week English Camp
at the local Sinhalese village school and nearby Tamil estate school. The 2-week programme culminated in
an English theatrical extravaganza, jointly performed by the students of both schools and attended by their parents,
teachers and local community leaders. It was an excellent opportunity for the children to practice spoken-English,
increase their confidence levels, and bring together both communities. Feedback from the children,
parents and teachers was very positive, and we hope to support similar programmes in the future.
Based on the success of the Camp, we sponsor after-school English classes for local village children. The classes are a
big hit with local children, since learning English is seen as very beneficial for future educational and employment prospects.
We also regularly receive donations of second-hand computers, sporting equipment, toys, clothing and other items
from Amba’s friends around the world. We distribute these donations to local families on holidays and special occasions.
In the future, with the help of our local hamlet, we are hoping to establish a village computer-lab – where
children and adults from the area will be able to develop their IT and English skills, access information and learn new skills.
At the moment there are no health facilities or regular medical services in the valley – villagers have to travel several miles
to see a doctor or get treatment. We have had a couple of doctors visit the valley and provide free medical consultation
for our workers and neighbours, and we are hoping to sponsor a regular monthly visit by a doctor and nurse.
As active participants in valley life, Amba’s management also makes regular contributions to community events and activities
– these include support for the annual village Perahera, community festivals, improvement projects at local schools
and temples, road-building, and support to local families for weddings, funerals and emergency needs.
10% of our 10% employee revenue share is set aside and deposited in a welfare-fund, which is managed
by the employees. The employee committee sets criteria and allocates loans and grants to local families,
as needed, as well making donations to other organisations when natural disasters like
floods or landslides have affected communities elsewhere in Sri Lanka
Eliminating negative impacts
Our first priority is to ensure that all our farming and processing activities at Amba, while creating economic benefit
for the local community, generate no negative spill-overs on the environment in our valley and beyond
– no emissions, no artificial run-offs, no non-recyclable waste.
All of our cultivation and processing activities on the farm follow strict organic guidelines, and all of our self-grown products are certified as organic under EU organic regulations (for some of our products we source leaf and other raw materials from other local smallholders and these cannot be certified as organic). We use no artificial agro-chemicals.
To maintain and improve soil fertility, we make our own organic compost, using green material from the estate
and manure from our own herd of ‘rescue cows’ (it is a local Buddhist tradition to rescue cows destined for slaughter
from the abattoir at New Year each year – and Amba Estate now provides a happy home for approximately 20 cows
and their calves!). We also practice vermiculture, and intercrop our tea and other crops with gliricidia
and other nitrogen-fixing plants.
For pest control, we use a variety of natural methods, including natural insect traps, intercropping our vegetables with
basil, marigolds and other insect-repelling plants, and we make a variety of natural sprays using neem, garlic, chilli
and other ingredients. We have even experimented with using hair clippings around the edge of our vegetable garden
to keep wild boar out!
Like most villages in Sri Lanka, there is no trash-collection or recycling service in our valley. We apply a strict no-plastic rule
to our suppliers, providing them with reusable canvas bags for all deliveries, banning deliveries in plastic bags,
and trying to minimise purchase of goods in plastic packs or bottles. For waste disposal, we compost or burn
whatever we can, and we do our best to recycle any glass bottles and plastic bottles for other uses.
To reduce soil erosion, improve shade cover, absorb carbon, and help restore natural rainfall patterns,
we have planted more than 20,000 trees and shrubs over the last 12 years.
We have also installed gutters for rain-water harvesting on all the buildings on the estate. With completion of
a series of water-harvesting dams and ponds, we minimise run-off and erosion during the rainy season, while supplying
all the water needs of the farm and guests during the dry season. We are also gradually restoring the dozens of miles of
stone walls, terraces and gullies that were built by the original estate-pioneers more than 100 years ago.
Restoring natural ecosystems
More than half the Estate is secondary forest and scrub that has grown up after former tea fields
and other cropping areas were abandoned. We are preserving this whole area as a forest and wildlife reserve.
We have introduced bee-hives and planted sustainable shade-grown crops (such as coffee, pepper and other spices)
in selected areas of the forest. We hope to make this a model for other farmers and land-owners in the area
to demonstrate that they can generate income without cutting down the forest. We also plan to build paths and hides
in the forest, so visitors can learn more about the natural ayurvedic crops growing in the forest
and observe the rich wildlife and birdlife.
As we develop additional tourism facilities, we are also planning to make the entire estate energy self-sufficient.
We already use solar heaters for our hot water, and biomass and solar driers to dry our tea and other herbs.
In future, we envisage that a combination of photovoltaic solar panels, hydro-power from our dams and gullies,
wind turbines on our windy ridges, and biogas from our cows will produce all of our energy needs.
Another initiative is our partnership with the Mulleriyawa Halfway Home for women recovering for mental illness.
The Home, part of the National Institute of Mental Health, is the only facility of its kind in Sri Lanka.
Many of the women residing at the psychiatric home are capable of living productive lives in the community given the right opportunities and resources. However, integrating these women back into the community is often hampered by the fact that they have lost contact with family and friends, and therefore need help and assistance to rebuild their lives.
The partnership began when Beverly Wainwright, Amba’s original Business Development Manager (and a former volunteer with the UK-based Voluntary Service Overseas) was discussing ideas with Stella Wragg, another VSO volunteer
responsible for developing vocational training opportunities for the ladies at Mulleriyawa. As a result,
the ladies of Mulleriyawa began making packaging for some of Amba’s teas and other products,
as well hand-puppets and other gift-items. The packaging and puppets were an immediate success,
and have generated hundreds of thousands of rupees in income for the ladies and the Home.
Most of the net proceeds from each bag goes to the individual lady who made the bag, enabling each of them
to buy personal items or save up for the future, often for the first time in their lives. The rest of the net proceeds
go to a social fund for supporting extracurricular activities (excursions, holiday celebrations, games, etc.)
for all the residents of the Home. Not only are the bags now generating an income stream for the residents,
the project is also teaching them how to work to a deadline, fill orders, and meet product specifications and quality.
For the staff involved, the learning curve has been steep, as they educate themselves about
how to run a business and look for other small businesses to build partnerships with.
The success of the packaging project has enabled Mulleriyawa to develop similar supply arrangements with other companies, and it has led to a much deeper partnership between Amba and Mulleriyawa. Amba sponsored a group of ladies from Mulleriyawa to visit the Estate in December 2011. During the three-day trip (a first for many of the participants),
the ladies were able to see how the tea was made, make new friends and business contacts, and help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by showing that people with mental illness are contributing to their communities.
In March 2012, the employees at Amba took a weekend trip to Mulleriyawa to visit their new friends and mark
International Women’s Day. The excursion included a tour of the home, sharing of handicraft skills, and
some great food, tea and singing. Not surprisingly, the meeting strengthened the growing friendship between the ladies
and solidified a very promising livelihood project between the two organizations.
Based on the insights gathered from these interactions, Beverly, Stella and Shaun Humphries (another VSO volunteer)
created and published a special book Happy: Personal Reflections on Mental Well-Being. The book draws on
the comments and observations of the Mulleriyawa ladies, Amba’s workers and customers, and a range of
famous authors, cricketers and others to examine the attitudes and beliefs that we all have about mental wellness.
The hope is that this publication sheds a light on mental well-being in Sri Lanka and challenges our assumptions
(often negative) about what it’s like to have a mental illness. All proceeds from the sale of the book go
to support further livelihood projects at Halfway Home Mulleriyawa.
Please email us if you would like to purchase a copy of Happy: Personal Reflections on Mental Well-Being”.
The first 2 print-runs all sold out, but we are planning to do another print-run for sales in the Amba shop.