Odiris – End of an era

Today we pay tribute to one of Sri Lanka’s greatest entrepreneurs who revolutionised the kitchen with a product that is still unmatchable – the ubiquitous semi-mechanised coconut scraper. Who could do without it, nowadays? Even coconut powder from Nestle’s and other companies, though convenient, haven’t still matched the competitive power of the coconut scraper.

Odiris Perera, who died this week at the age of 94, like many of the country’s great entrepreneurs came from the south and had the usual struggle-to-success formula. All of them had a hard time battling against the odds but nevertheless succeeded.

Few entrepreneurs in the post-independence era have made it good in recent times and though Odiris, synonymous with the Odiris coconut scraper, created a yet-unbeatable product, he belonged to a breed who were unable or didn’t expand, diversify and become big time. Few have indeed.

Among the better known entrepreneurs in that generation were those like A.Y.S. Gnanam, U.K. Edmund, the Maliban family, the Maharaja brothers, the Kotelawela’s, K. Gunaratnam, Jinasena group, Albert Page of Cargills, DSI Group and Harischandra Brothers. Few have branched out successfully into conglomerates like entrepreneurs of the likes of Laugfs’ Wegapitiya, Siddhalepa or Damro.

Entrepreneurs during Odiris’ generation competed hard against foreign competition in British-dominated Sri Lanka Odiris struggled but survived. He worked in the old CGR, like his father, but his spirit of entrepreneurship led him into the engineering business and a hard struggle ahead.

Entrepreneurship was tough those days, businessmen of that era will tell you. Yet some of the country’s best generation of entrepreneurs were spawned during the 1960-1970s periods until the free market, ruined not only local entrepreneurs but the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Many have fallen down the wayside and no government then and now has been able to lift the spirits of local entrepreneurs and raise new talent with a few exceptions. There has been little or no support except for the occasional cosmetic backing which gets entrepreneurs nowhere. The budget next month will once again offer similar cosmetic benefits. Financing is difficult and modern day entrepreneurs have a more problematic path to follow, challenged constantly by cheaper foreign goods from China and India while rising costs of production are hurting the bottom line.

Just last week, paints manufacturers said they may be forced to shift manufacturing facilities abroad while printers here are battling against competition from Indian printers grabbing the business in Sri Lanka with a huge cost advantage. So then how do you create a nation of entrepreneurs – as our leaders have often promised? Some years back the JVP during its brief alliance with the Chandrika Kumaratunga government promised to uplift the local industry and carve out a new breed of entrepreneurs. However even before they got down to work, the marriage between the two parties collapsed.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, wresting power on the back of the JVP which is now a hostile partner, has also failed miserably in uplifting local industry. Costs are high and industrialists just cannot compete with rising costs of raw material, rupee depreciation, high taxes and rising costs of energy and pressure on wages. A few however have succeeded with niche market products where the cost of the product is not an issue – because it’s the quality and uniqueness that matters like Dilmah Tea for instance.

It’s very unlikely that we will ever see a generation of Odiris/Gnanam-type entrepreneurs again – who virtually walked the streets to sell their wares in those tough times. The current or next generation of entrepreneurs would most likely emerge from the IT or service industry not heavy or light industry like the giants of the past. Some examples now are Dhammika Perera, Sumal Perera or Kiran Atapattu. The death of Odiris got little mention in the media — just a few paragraphs in newspapers and an obituary notice.

TV stations didn’t think it fit to record the death of a great entrepreneur, or didn’t know about a “most surprising pioneer” as described by Patrick Amarasinghe, another well-known entrepreneur. On our part, we salute a great entrepreneur.