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 They were big, once relevant but completely outdated when the digital revolution happened and the online buying culture erupted.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

Stronger where broken: Anoma Wijewardene interview story

We have been working with the prominent contemporary Sri Lankan artist Anoma Wijewardene for years. Anoma’s commissions for stories are always a challenge because they need to capture the complexity of her art and the emotions behind it. From a professional point of view, it was important for Anoma to bring in her future work, collaborations and partnerships to stories, and it was part of the writer’s challenge to incorporate these without compromising the flow and emotion of the story on Art. This particular piece was on Anoma’s latest international show during the legendary Venice Biennale. The monumental significance of the Biennale and a Sri Lankan artist’s presence there made the story an important one, and was featured on The Sunday Times in June 2019.

Life can break us; But, courage allows the healing that makes us stronger where we were once broken. When Anoma Wijewardene was invited to exhibit at the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures: Identities, a collateral exhibition of the Venice Biennale, it was her series Kintsugi, which explores the search for harmony and renewal in a world of unconscionable intolerance and division, which she chose to submit. True to Anoma’s artistic voice that has always commented on what goes unnoticed despite it burning in our very midst, these works were a reflection on fragmented and wounded societies, and reflecting upon our common humanity in the face of conflict, misguided religious fervour and human insecurity—a conversation that is more relevant to Sri Lanka than ever before. The installation Kintsugi invites us to accept the stewardship we share of our fragile planet. Within days of returning from Venice, Anoma Wijewardene joined for an interview about what it meant to have ‘Kintsugi’ shown to a global audience at a time when the emotions behind it returned in full force after Easter 2019, and how she sees art as a crucial part of our cultural and social dialogue.

It was 2014 when Anoma started painting the series that will be viewed by thousands over the next five months of the duration of the legendary Biennale in Venice. At the time, she was dealing with her emotions on the racial tensions mushrooming around Sri Lanka. Longing for a real reconciliation and ‘togetherness’, Anoma was drawn to the Japanese art of restoration ‘Kintsugi’—which translates to golden seams. Here, shattered fragments are fused with gold enamel, revealing and embracing, rather than disguising the mistakes. It is a concept which calls for seeing beauty in the flawed and imperfect and celebrates reconstruction and re-unification. She found a powerful message in this statement on the necessity of reconciliation for survival, and the strength in embracing our history and our differences. She found that perceiving breakage and repair as part of life that needs no disguise and must be central to the attitudes that make for reconciliation and renewal.

Half a decade after the series was originally created and the work was being reconstructed to be a part of ‘Identities’ Anoma was struck by how the relevance of ‘Kintsugi’ also resurfaced. “Easter was just ten days before I flew out. The work had been shipped already but I couldn’t help but notice how apposite it was” she says. But, this is precisely the power of art; artistic work that stems from the human core will always move parallel to our own evolution, and even collective destinies. The ringing relevance that ‘Kintsugi’ bore to critical social issues resonated with the curators, and the overall theme—‘May You Live In Interesting Times’; a title encompassing the highly polarised and turbulent times the world is currently experiencing.

Speaking about being invited to show at a collateral show of the Venice Biennale—or the Olympics of art as Forbes deems it—Anoma was both humbled and grateful. The last time that Sri Lanka had the honour was seventy years ago, with the inclusion of the 43 group at the Arsenale. “The project’s complexity and the scale itself had me taken back a little, but at the same time, I knew it was a collateral exhibition of THE Venice Biennale! A six month viewing period, close to an estimated 500,000 visitors, and most importantly, an opportunity for Sri Lanka to share a voice on diversity, unity and healing—something I felt the world really needed right now. I am so grateful to the curators of the European Cultural Centre for including my work in their exhibition.”

Anoma said that showing in Venice, at the Palazzo Bembo by the Rialto Bridge on the Canale Grande, was daunting; but she felt that the entire Biennale was a collective statement from the world’s artists, looking to stimulate an understanding on how we relate to each other and the planet across the social and cultural divide. “Borders are powerful symbols, whether political, religious, cultural or psychological. The Personal Structures curators were focusing on how division forces us to look closely at our own identity and distinguish between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’; the ‘us’ and ‘them’. But, how do we find beauty in our differences and cherish our cultural commonality? Kintsugi is a work that invites us to embrace our diversity and understand how it makes our experience richer.”

Kintsugi installation has a quiet intensity; it grows on you, and takes hold of you with a ‘broken togetherness’. This quiet intensity is elevated with the inclusion of powerful poetry and haunting music to create a book and a video installation. “Multimedia, mixed media and sensory immersion with a video installation, and a book…..it was a mix of all these that completed Kintsugi.”

The poetry followed the art when Anoma’s childhood friend writer and poet Romesh Gunesekera visited her in 2015 while she was painting the series. He was moved. “I just mused out loud about him writing a paragraph or two for it; and some months after, out came this incredible poetry that was crafted using shards and fragments, just like my art. They examined the fundamentals of the paintings in a parallel process of separation and renewal. I felt that ideas like isolation, conflict, displacement, as well as reconciliation, healing and harmony, were expressed even more profoundly when the images and the words came together.” When Anoma went still further to incorporate music and video into the art, she was opening the experience out to yet another dimension. What grips you in the video with Anoma’s art and Romesh’s poetry, is the music. So precisely composed, so hauntingly evocative, the music was specifically created for the art by Sharon Smith who synthesised the words recited by Romesh with tones from several cultures and music genres. The Canadian music editor and composer based in Los Angeles has worked with Hollywood directors, playwrights and choreographers. “All these collaborations evolved organically, through friendships. I was so fortunate to have the wonderful response from Romesh to Sharon, and so many others whose input was so crucial”, Anoma says. Despite her true love being pure painting, Anoma has clearly never been afraid to explore other realms. Even in Venice, Anoma’s installation carries a another element, with the scent of cinnamon—a fragrance so closely linked to the spice island of Sri Lanka—incorporated into the work;  “ Spices must have traversed the Silk Route from ancient Ceylon to the emporia of the City State of Venice for centuries; and so it seems I have naturally now moved into the realm of olfactory art,” she says.

Kintsugi will remain in Venice for another five months. During this time, five hundred thousand minds are expected to encounter and engage with the art at the European Cultural Centre’s two palazzos. And to them all, Anoma’s art will present a brave new perspective on what hopes there are for reconciliation and harmony—a viewpoint that comes from Sri Lanka, an island struggling to heal, yet trying nevertheless.

Taking this powerful story out to a global audience was made possible by a collective of patrons who understood the significance of art in crafting Sri Lanka’s international image; “The John Keells Foundation and Cinnamon Life, Ceylon Tea, the National Lotteries Board, AOD, Etihad Airways and a few amazing individuals were part of taking this work to Venice. They were so incredibly generous and progressive in their thinking to understand the importance of a Sri Lankan presence there. I am deeply indebted to them for believing in my work and understanding its message. Thank you!”

Anoma’s work over the last two decades has extensively covered topics like climate change and the call for a collective harmony and peaceful coexistence. Her last major international group show was in 2016 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, where Anoma was the only South Asian artist in the exhibition ‘One Belt One Road’. Her monograph was just launched in London in March 2019 and will soon be released in Sri Lanka.

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