From Homemaker to Horticulture Champion
Several years ago, Theivanai was a happy homemaker for a family of four children. Her husband worked as an expert budder in Vavuniya to make ends meet. After several years, they decided to use a plot of their spare land to start a plant nursery. In 2006, the nursery was set up near their home and soon the responsibility of tending to the nursery fell on Theivanai. She began to study plants and propagation methods and was soon well-versed in techniques of plant nursery management.
The whole family began to get more involved in tending to the nursery. While Theivanai worked full-time tending to the plants; her husband spent his spare time budding and grafting; their two girls spent their weekends and holidays filling up polythene bags with potting mixture made in the backyard. In 2014 Theivanai received a rehabilitation loan of Rs. 50,000. With additional loans from her relatives she collected enough funds to build a well to irrigate her plants. Since there were now more loans to pay and mouths to feed, Theivanai was faced with the challenge to push for greater (and faster) development of the nursery. However, the success rate of her venture began to show signs of slowing down.
Theivanai started raising seedlings from selected 'mother' plants (from pedigree farmers) producing lime, arecanut, jack, king coconut and a range of flower plants from cuttings. Using her relationship with the Government Seed Production Farm in Vavuniya (where her husband worked) she was able to easily get information about the sources of quality plants. She was propagating 6-8 different types of plants and sold them to the customers who visited the farm. She then registered herself as private nursery woman with the of Department of Agriculture. Theivanai seemingly had all the ingredients for success and was ready to maintain a flourishing business. But, few knew about Theivanai and her backyard nursery.
Under the SUNRISE Project, Oxfam in Sri Lanka selected Theivanai as one of their SME plant suppliers in 2016. The SUNRISE project has been actively at work in the North, East and Sabaragamuwa Provinces of Sri Lanka. Supported by DFAT funding sources, it's purpose is to nurture a viable group of women-led enterprises in agriculture and handloom value chains and create enabling environments for SMEs. She was able to supply high quality seedlings which the SUNRISE project needed. She was provided with advanced training on plant nursery management and plant propagation techniques at the Horticultural Research and Development Institute (HORDI), Peradeniya. She also received exposure on advanced propagation methods at the CIC farm, Pelvehera. Then came the next big break she was waiting for. The SUNRISE project, with the support of business development programs organized by Lanka Social Ventures (LSV) enrolled her in book-keeping training. She was quick to see how she could use business principles to expand her nursery project. Book-keeping wasn’t the easiest thing for her as she was more at ease in the kitchen than working with numbers. This was when her eldest daughter stepped up and soon, they were both working together and learning how recording and maintaing numbers could help them turn both their life and their business around.
The small greenhouse she received from the project helps to grow plants that need an extra bit of care during the young stages and thereby increase her scale of production. The ‘Nivethini Plant Nursery’ named after her daughter was gaining a reputation for quality. Her nursery was able to meet the DOA certification for quality plants because of prior investments she had made to collect pedigreed mother plants. With newly acquired skills she was practicing new plant propagation methods and was producing a wide range of nursery plants from cuttings of betel vine, crotons, shoe-flower, layering of guava, rose apple, pomegranate, budding and grafting roses, orange etc. She engaged herself in selling the plants to farmers. Her income was still Rs. 3,000-5000 per month. The book-keeping taught her that she must have more sales to make more profit. This encouraged her to begin selling her plants outside her home town, and even the district. The only way to do this was to have a reliable means of transport.. Again relying on her newly acquired book-keeping skills, it became apparent that she would need to lease a truck for the business.
With a leased truck the Nivethini Nursery now reaches out to farmers in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts and the remote corners of the home district of Vavuniya. There is a set visiting schedule and people know when they can expect to see Theivanai and her truck-full of plants arriving. At present, she has nearly 40,000-42,000 plants ranging between 25 -30 types in her nursery. When she goes out on sales, she adorns her truck with a banner on the side for everyone to see where the plants come from. She keeps her plants on the shelves inside the truck to minimize damage. She now earns an average of Rs. 2,800-3,500 daily.
During temple festivals and village fairs her earnings rise to Rs.5,000-6,500 per day. As a result, she can now expect to earn Rs. 40,000-45,000 per month.
The villagers and farmers trust the superior quality of plants from Nivethini nursery. She has never recieved any complaints about the plant quality and plans to keep it that way. She has offered to replace any plants free of charge in the client isn't satisfied with the purchase. However, there is also more work to be done. She wants to have more clients visiting her to buy directly from the nursery and is eager to develop her business in such a way that this goal is eventually reached.
For Theivanai and her family, the Nivethini Nursery forms the heart of their household. The whole family is a part of the nursery business and as their plants bloom in thousands of homesteads in the region, so will her business.