Do or die: Dulith Herath interview story

We’ve been working with Sri Lanka’s e-commerce pioneer, Kapruka founder Dulith Herath for years now. His views on technology and its role in Sri Lanka’s economy are incredibly fascinating and his ideas remain as groundbreaking as ever. Among the many stories and written pieces we’ve developed on Dulith, this is the latest. When we met Dulith for this interview at his Java Lounge café in Jawatte, he explained how important it was for him to make local businesses understand the that e-commerce is no longer a choice. As much as the message came from a place of personal passion and conviction for Dulith, it was also important that the piece connected to his latest operation ‘Grasshoppers’ which gave local businesses the opportunity to streamline last mile delivery end-to-end. It was essential for the writer to make the connection between Dulith’s ideas and where they connect to a new opportunity with Grasshoppers.

Since the article was presented as an interview with quotes of Dulith’s ideas and thoughts, the introduction we wrote for him needed to really nail his authority in the subject matter. Although the headline was the ‘punch’ of the article, this introduction was what really gave its weight.

Sri Lanka’s e-com pioneer Dulith Herath SPEAKS OUT in exclusive interview discussing how his network of online retail facilitators, from ‘Kapruka’ to the latest ‘Grasshoppers’, gives Sri Lankan businesses everything they need to ace the online retail game.

“Sri Lankan businesses need to take a good look at how dinosaur enterprises were affected in bigger markets across the world. They were big, once relevant but completely outdated when the digital revolution happened and the online buying culture erupted. It became a fast downfall to those dinosaurs. But, we don’t have to repeat the same mistakes here. There’s room to change, but not much time. So, now is the time you need to get behind this, before it’s too late,” says Dulith Herath. As the man who pioneered the ecommerce sector in Sri Lanka, Herath has a wealth of wisdom to offer any business on how to get their online game right. Right now, he has just completed what he calls ‘Sri Lanka’s first complete e commerce facilitator network’. For years now, Herath has been working in developing the country’s ecommerce sector through his own ventures like Kapruka and Grasshoppers; going as far as meeting Asia’s e-com king Jack Ma of Alibaba. Sharing more on this, Herath joined Daily FT for an exclusive interview where he discussed the future of e-tail, how Sri Lankan businesses are losing out by not tapping into the online marketplace, and why there are no more excuses left for local businesses to get their e commerce game on point. “It’s a do-or-die really,” he says.

“It’s not even a question to ask whether e commerce revolution will happen in Sri Lanka; it’s just a question of when, and it’s already happening”

Dulith has studied the e-commerce landscapes in markets all over the world, from US, Canada, India, China to Thailand, observing the common traits. He pointed out that everywhere, the online buying phenomenon was welcomed at different paces— but surely and most definitely, it was always welcomed by consumers to eventually dominate the everyday purchasing habits. “It’s not to say that people will never go into a shop, but traditional retail will only survive at the more experiential end of the spectrum. For everyday shopping people will always resort to convenience, and online is hard to beat in this matter.” Herath also added that in every country, the entry of a giant player with major investments would bring about a significant ‘hockey-stick’ spike in the e commerce sales causing the entire sector to grow rapidly. “We’ve seen this in every country, from Amazon to Flipkart… Because when investment comes, the concessions to convert consumers into adapters become possible, and once they convert, the it’s a matter of continuing the habit. In Sri Lanka, this happened too, and the ripples of this are felt across the entire chain…and this is exactly what I hope will happen more often here with big companies like Softlogic being present. The share that investors can also gain is massive, because they’re breaking new paths here.” He assures that it’s only a matter of time for Sri Lankan businesses to realise that without e commerce, they’re not even scratching the surface of the possibilities available in the worldwide markets. “Accessibility to the online market is there now, the question is, are you ready to work towards it?”

“The idea that the markets in the South Asian region are not ready is a myth. About 15% of the Indian market is online. It’s only 22% even in the US.”

“If you look at the biggest retailers here in Sri Lanka, they’re not online. And when I say online, I mean really online. For most, getting online is a matter of adding a shopping cart to their website, cutting a ribbon and a cake, releasing a press story and waiting for something to happen. And when nothing happens, they fire the team,  start again, maybe give a discount, and have the customers flock, take the discount and never return…so it will keep dying this natural death, and they give it up saying the market is not ready. It doesn’t work like that. For me, even if 99% of my retail is brick-and-mortar, I will still go after developing that 1% because that’s the future. You need to get into it, and be serious about it.”

Herath explains that for e commerce to really work and become a success for a company, it takes the business leaders to understand that it is the future. With global statistics pointing out that online marketplace will only continue to boom, bringing in new accessibility and market shares from every corner of the world, it seems only obvious that e commerce will be the most popular form of buying and selling tomorrow. “Leaders need to motivate their teams to keep digging at it; keep investing; keep analysing the data; keep communicating with the customer…only then, it will begin to happen. And if you invest in this now, when the primary commercial channel becomes e commerce in the very near future, you will still be in the game.”

“And remember, the world is your competition now…”

Hearth spins the conversation to zoom in on another point of view. What does radical accessibility mean to the consumers here? Will Sri Lankan consumers stay loyal to local brands that don’t take the online retail world seriously, when the same or better products are available from abroad, at the click of a button? “It’s not just the Sri Lankan businesses having access to the consumer markets across the world. It’s the other way round too… our businesses need to remember that the local consumers now have access to products from every corner of the world. They can just order what they want, and have it shipped from the other corner of the world, right to their doorstep—especially with ventures like Grasshopper that we just started where last mile delivery becomes simplified and extremely economical. So what’s stopping your consumers from switching to a international competitor now?”

Herath adds that local retailers who go online and maintain their presence in the e commerce sphere will stay at the top of the consumer mind as people spend more and more of their time focused on screens.

“Everything you need to make e commerce work in Sri Lanka is there. There are no more excuses for failing at preparing your business for the inevitable future.”

Herath has connected an entire network of businesses and collaborators that can help any company to start their e commerce success story in Sri Lanka. He says that everything from infrastructure builders to delivery is now available in the country, leaving no room to hold back on the exponential growth that online retail world offers retailers. “You cannot say that there are no payment gateways in Sri Lanka—it’s there; you cannot say that there is no consumer adaptation here in the island—it’s clearly there; you cannot say there are no last mile delivery—companies like Grasshoppers are international award-winning experts at it. So, Sri Lankan retailers really have no excuses to get their online game right. It’s the future of retail, and with everything you need available in the country, what are you waiting for? Go on, make your business future-proof.

The article is online on Daily Financial Times DFT here

The knight with the pearl earring: Deloraine Brohier memoir

When the writer, Burgher cultural authority and researcher Deloraine Brohier passed away, we penned a tribute to her. The memoir was published on the Sunday Times as the official feature to celebrate Brohier’s life and work. This piece was written as a personal memoir to a friend, and captures the significance of Brohier, her work and life. It touches on her work’s significance to culture, writing and women in general as an example of a woman who did not live her life conventionally, but was loved and celebrated nevertheless.

The piece was published on The Sunday Times in 2017, following a week after Brohier’s passing.

‘Red for her funeral dress? No.’

‘It’s too bright!’

‘Isn’t it inappropriate?’

‘But, she was very clear in her instructions. She wanted to go in the red dress.’

‘We must respect her wishes, but it’s definitely not ordinary.’

Well, neither was Deloraine Brohier. Nothing about her life stood out as ordinary. All too often ‘women’ and ‘empowerment’ are mentioned in the same sentence, but too few women really lived the philosophy before it became a hashtag, a movement and another over-coffee conversation. Deloraine Brohier was one of them. A historian, writer, and encyclopaedic authority on Burgher life and customs, she lived her life as a gutsy response to what was considered ‘female’ in an orthodox society.

Educated, and more importantly, rich with a prevailing sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder, her lifetime was one long pilgrimage consecrated to the arts, history and culture. She possessed a refreshing confidence in her own intelligence and abilities as a single being. She travelled all over the world for work, for pleasure, all on her own, with family and similarly curious friends, gathering an incredible string of experiences that shaped her person. All this through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, in Sri Lanka’s conformist society where a single woman living alone, travelling and working at her free will, was rare.

She was her father’s daughter. The searching spirit of that great historian and explorer R.L. Brohier lived in his youngest child- Beryl Deloraine Brohier born April 13, 1927. She watched her parents and how they moved about life as her father served in the Survey Department pre and post-Independence. The way he and her mother continued their search for answers to satisfy their own sense of wonderment in nature and human culture, unfettered by the ordinary weights of life, such as children, their schools, moving homes etc. She graduated from the University of Ceylon- Colombo in 1950, was involved in education and broadcasting before working with the United Nations.

Deloraine was the closest to her father’s heart after his wife’s somewhat early demise. In the years that she cared for him and assisted him in his last works, she became the sole custodian of a vast ocean of historical research and knowledge that Dr. R. L. Brohier left behind. This was the beginning of her lifelong mission to preserve some of his works through reprinting, editing and publication. At the same time, she found his legacy guiding her to discover the expansiveness of this world and the human experience, through her own research too.

Deloraine Brohier dressed impeccably. Her treasured wardrobe pieces were scarves, clothing and jewellery sets entwined with exotic stories from the faraway places. She loved wearing a certain pearl set not for its monetary value but because it was fished in the Australian seas by an indigenous people who possessed a fascinating art of pearl harvesting. For Deloraine, her possessions were always special, a part of her voice, her persona and her worldview. She collected such things as her personal tribute to human craftsmanship which she regarded so highly.

Deloraine thought the arts to be the most profound expression of emotion. The painting ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was one she often spoke of with reverence as an example of the power of art to transport us to intellectual reverie. Hers was no blind fascination with the arts for the sake of arts, but a true all-embracing appreciation stemming from the understanding of its role in our evolution. This allowed her to fall freely into experiencing the arts and their materialisation throughout history without inhibition, going from orchestral music and traditional dance to the irrigation heritage of Sri Lanka, the secrets of Burgher culinary history and the trinkets made by the forgotten Boer prisoners in Diyatalawa who etched their nostalgia for home onto their crafts during their lifelong entrapment. Her many books and the editorial republications of her father’s work wove in and out of such incredibly diverse historically rich stories that reflected her breadth of interest and knowledge.

Deloraine was committed to being in a state of ‘wonder’. In our discussions about creativity, inspiration, curiosity and education, she shared little gems of her knowledge embellished with her twinkling wisdom. “If you don’t teach children to love that emotion of conscious, questioning wonder, through whatever medium- history, music, art, literature…they will never learn to chase a muse, to search for answers. And they will always be disinterested in everything including themselves,” she lamented the ineffectiveness of traditional education systems and the mindless drowning into digital screens.

Deloraine often spoke about how she and her siblings were not allowed to sleep during their many travels with their parents- her father gave them a continuing commentary on the history of sites and towns and her mother on the flora and fauna en route. From this early inception into the sense of wonder, ‘living’ as her interpretation, was to ‘follow this sense of wonder we have in us, because it simply makes you happy or because it can even give you the answer to life.’

She was hungry for inspiration, and meticulous in recording it. After seeing how one of her traveller-friends dedicated an entire day after the journey to record-keeping, she adopted the habit and stuck to it faithfully over the years writing down the notes of her expeditions in detail: a trait she advised on cultivating in order to make the most out of our experiences. Her hurriedly scribbled notes on rock formations, landscapes, stars, types of trees and animals crowded her books and photographic recollections that she shared with us. ‘Don’t wait too long to clear your desk, and put your mind to rest with what you have seen. It stays somewhere in your memory and comes back when you need it. Our mind is the most amazing thing.’

She was a rebel, a quiet female revolutionary in a sense: Deloraine knew that the only sure way to bring about a change for the way women lived in our society was by simply going out there and living the life of a free woman. ‘People must see how you live and what it does to you, to change how they would live,’ she insisted, staying true to her intuitions until their time to become widely accepted would come.  ‘I shall maintain’ is also the motto on the badge marking one the greatest honours she received in her lifetime- Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Her bright red funeral dress that caused miniature uproars, was a memoir of this treasured occasion when she was awarded the knighthood.

She was 89 when she passed away last Monday, but she hadn’t even considered slowing down. Her last work on the Ceylonese women doctors, which she discussed with me at length with shining enthusiasm, sits ready for its final edit. Her work remains, speaking to masses, changing minds, uncovering knowledge both old and new.

She will be remembered for her incredible contribution to researching and recording the arts, history and cultures that are part of our existence. Deloraine Brohier was sent off from our world in her vivacious red dress, attesting to her spirit, her wonder, her guts and her glory; the knight with the pearl earring rode on to her next expedition.

The article is also available on The Sunday Times online edition here.