There’s something comforting about the fact that Savera Weerasinghe, despite having founded a thriving non-profit, worked as the CEO of a paper packaging company, and launched a brand of sustainable packaging, isn’t 100 per cent sure about how the Inland Revenue Department works. It was one of many challenges she faced when she decided to run Ananta Sustainables—previously a part of MSH Packaging Industries, where she worked as CEO—as its own independent company in 2018. “I think the hardest thing was, before, I had a whole management team—shipping department, legal, finance—so there were a lot of really basic things that I didn’t know how to do,” she tells me. “And now I’m like, oh my gosh, I have to figure this out. It was a huge leap. But it’s been amazing in terms of the kind of people you meet — sustainability is like a natural filter for good people who get it.”
She’s probably right about that last point: “Anyone working in sustainability will tell you, it’s not the biggest money-maker,” she laughs. For most people in the business of conservation, their work is motivated purely by its result. “We grew up spending a lot of time in the jungles, so for me, it’s just from a love for the environment,” says Savera. Her mother is the environmental architect Sunela Jayawardene, whose influence on her is evident: “I knew that the environment and sustainability would be at the foundation of everything I did.” After completing a degree in Environmental Studies and Social Entrepreneurship at New York University, Savera co-founded a non-profit called MiddyFund, which worked with middle-schoolers to help them design, pitch, and receive funding for solutions to social and environmental issues in their communities.
She was back home on a trip with some friends when she made the decision to move back, in 2016. “There was a tangible air of opportunity, and I felt like I didn’t want to just join the bandwagon, I wanted to build something,” she explains. “I’ve always been raised with the notion of service to the country, so I wanted to contribute in any way.” She returned, took a week off, and joined one of her family’s companies.
She realised quite quickly, however, that there was a lot there she wanted to change, and the opportunity to do so came entirely by chance. She was visiting an industrial paper packaging factory in Weliveriya—part of her family’s group of companies—when she got to speaking with the workers there, promising that she would return to see how things were going. She did return, eventually taking over as CEO and introducing a number of progressive measures, including running the factory entirely on solar-power and nurturing a workforce that was 72 per cent women.
The Meethotamulla disaster in 2017 was a turning point for Savera. “I was really alarmed by what happened,” she says, so she put together a forum, called Trash Talk, to get to the root of the problem and to facilitate solutions. There, she realised that she was in a prime position to create change — “Just realising that packaging was such a huge problem, I was embarrassed to say that I ran a packaging company and we didn’t have a consumer-facing solution.” She did some research around compostable packaging and ordered a shipment soon after, while also organising community projects centred around waste-management, sustainability, and environmental awareness. “I realised through the forums that there’s a lot of people looking for packaging, for solutions that allowed them to not use so much single-use plastic,” she says, “So Ananta was not so much a business decision as much as a desire to fill a need, to create a product for people who cared.”
Ananta Sustainables now provides 100 per cent compostable packaging materials, as well as offering advisory services to organisations aiming to reassess their environmental impact. While running Ananta, Savera has been filming a documentary through the coalition she co-founded, Waste Action LK (WALK), depicting waste management efforts all around the country, and what Sri Lanka’s future looks like in terms of sustainability. Her experiences interviewing activists and change-makes across the island has assured her of one thing: “The surest thing about our future is now. And if we can throw ourselves into doing anything, any little thing today, that’s all we need.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.