“When I was little I wanted to be a veterinarian!” exclaims Anoka Abeyrathne. “But, thanks to a lot of negativity—you should be a doctor, I was told—I eventually pursued law.” Anoka’s turning point came during the tsunami when many lost loved ones, including her. “While I was grieving I tried to figure out what I can do to make sure another wave doesn’t hit us,” she tells me. “That’s when the mangrove project began. I was 13-years-old when I started Sustain Solutions, the organization, and Growin’ Money, the flagship program to plant mangrove trees.”
It was a time before social media was popular and many people looked at her wondering how someone so young would know anything. But, by involving religious and community leaders, and other adults to help carry the message to as many people as possible, Anoka shared why they needed to be a part of it. A business that started as 6 people has expanded to 5 countries. “Back then, I never could’ve imagined the success we’ve had!” she laughs. “We have teams across the world working on advocacy and lobbying governments. There are so many more aspects to it. We work with corporates, have partnerships, CSR events and more. It’s grown into something with a life of its own!”
When Anoka and her team began, they focused their efforts in Bolgoda. A lot of garbage was dumped into the lake and trees were chopped down for firewood. “What people didn’t realize was that Bolgoda lake is ideal for ecotourism allowing you to both preserve the environment and generate a solid income for the community,” she shares. “But we didn’t judge them for their actions, instead, we had honest conversations to figure out why this was happening and how it can be addressed differently.”
Now, these communities have taken on the project, working from within. “You start something expecting it to last a few years, like putting enough trees to stop another wave, but when people take ownership to see it through on their own, that’s what you live for,” reflects Anoka. Some of the other areas they work in are Ambalangoda, Batticaloa, Thalwatta, and a little in Muthurajawela. “It’s different areas with estuaries because for mangroves to grow, you need a lot more salinity in the water,” she shares.
Getting the message out and creating awareness especially in young people is a part of their work, starting as young as nursery-goers. “That’s when you start developing your curiosity,” Anoka says. “We do our best to make sure they understand how important it is to co-exist and from there on we show people that if you have purpose, your life is a lot more fulfilling.” They carry this message through a lot of PR through events, workshops, engaging with media and agencies, collaborating with local universities and even with international exchanges for foreign students with placements here.
“For the past year and a half, we’ve been providing more digital skills to people in Sri Lanka, particularly female entrepreneurs in impoverished areas, like Monaragala and Badulla,” explains Anoka. “What we’re trying to do is motivate them to elevate their existing skills, on Instagram for example, to generate engagement and, ultimately, more sales.” To do this a lot of digital training is required. At first, people were sceptical about the idea, believing they were too old to learn and the culture shock it brought with it. “Sri Lanka’s digital penetration is very low, so more people need to hop on board. If they don’t try, they will get left behind.” So what did they do? They spoke to them one-on-one, and discussed their businesses and issues, and offered more digital solutions. “A lot of female entrepreneurs are very keen to join us. Once you show them the potential—like how much you can earn off of YouTube—they’re happy to give it a try,” she says. Anoka learned some of the skills needed at the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge where she is a postgraduate student of innovation and entrepreneurship.
What’s exciting to note is that a shift has taken place—more women are becoming entrepreneurs. A few years ago, if you wanted to become a business person, you’d be met with plenty of resistance. “Some of the things you’d hear are: ‘Get a real job’, ‘You’re going to hate doing this in a couple of years’, or ‘This isn’t going to make you money’, shares Anoka. “But now there’s a huge drive towards entrepreneurship. Sri Lanka doesn’t have jobs to offer everyone and if people start something in every town, you’re employing everyone else. You’re supporting each other and that’s how communities are built.”
The work Anoka has done is enormous and success has met her at every turn, like the youngest Zonta Woman of Achievement Awards, the first female World Economic Forum New Champion and Forbes’ 30 Under 30. But she insists it’s not due to her efforts alone. “It takes a small village!” she enthuses. “It’s because of our passion and the work we’ve done as a team that led to some wonderful moments.” As we part ways, she shares one last piece of wisdom: “Find your passion. Think about what legacy you want to leave and what you want to people to remember about you. Then go out there and do it.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.