EXPERT KNOWLEDGE IS NO LONGER OUT OF REACH
Setting up a business is an exhilarating, exciting, exhausting prospect. Without the right advice and support it can also be a daunting one. Samantha Weerasinghe, agriculture entrepreneur and Founder and Managing Director of Sentro Consulting, specialises in advising SMEs on the way forward with their businesses, from feasibility to operations.
Here, he shares his views on the evolution of Sri Lankan entrepreneurs and Sri Lanka’s potential as a hub for value added exports.
You founded Sentro Consulting in 2012. How did you start on this journey and what inspired you to start the company?
Samantha: It was while I was working in investment consulting that I noticed a gap in the market in Sri Lanka to provide services to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). My initial training was in auditing and after completing my accountancy qualifications I worked at the likes of Amber Research and Richard Pieris Group, gaining experience on both research and operations sides of the businesses. In other countries around the world there was so much information available to businesses through consultancy reports, but in Sri Lanka that level of detail was only accessible by a few of the blue-chip companies. It was cost prohibitive for SMEs to hire highly qualified accountants and it didn’t seem right that they were excluded from accessing this knowledge. I founded Sentro Consulting to provide that service.
How did that lack of access disadvantage SMEs in Sri Lanka?
In other locations internationally, when someone wants to start a business one of the first steps they take is to get a feasibility report or business plan developed. But here, there wasn’t any kind of advisory company who could support these kinds of SME entrepreneurs in an affordable manner. The founders may have the funds and the experience, but a lack of proper planning and management led to many small businesses getting into financial difficulty within one to two years. I set up this Sentro Consulting to bridge that gap – to provide guidance on the numbers and the business plan. Subsequently we’ve extended into the operational side as well. What makes Sentro Consulting unique compared to other consulting businesses in Sri Lanka? We are unique in our focus on the feasibility side, particularly in the area of agricultural investment and international trade.
Other consultancies may work on the operational side but we are involved early in projects and look at the initial feasibility, rather than the cultivation side. We focus on small and medium enterprises and provide affordable business and financial consulting. The majority of our clients are individual entrepreneurs but we also work with large corporations and international brands on feasibility projects and confidential evaluations. We’ve completed many project feasibility study reports on the likes of hotels, pharmaceutical manufacturing, value added rubber & agri products and green house farming. We provide virtual CFO services, publish industry & market reports, prepare project loan reports, provide international trade consulting services and international trade training programmes on agricultural exports. Sentro is also a licensed company secretary for the incorporation of limited liability companies and secretarial services.
What’s your view on the outlook for entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka?
The outlook is good. I’ve seen a mindset change where entrepreneurs, the younger generation in particular, are increasingly interested in business plans and project reports. They want to know something is feasible before they invest their money in it and that will stand these new businesses in good stead for a successful future.
Where do you see the big opportunities?
On the agricultural investment side there is a lot of opportunities for new investors and for existing corporates who can diversify. With support from the blue-chip companies, the government, SMEs and the farming community, Sri Lanka can build up a strong agricultural export industry similar to other Asian countries like India and China. Within agri, the opportunities are in non-traditional exports such as a fruits and vegetables that can undergo value added processes like chopping, canning and drying. There is increasing demand for these products and high margins. Markets like the Middle East, where the cost of processing is high, and the Maldives, with large hotel chains, are prime targets for these types of goods. The new technologies and consumer demands come from Europe, to the Middle East and then to South Asia. It happens time and again, in the past with packaged juices and fruit snacks, now with organics. If Sri Lanka can step ahead and become a pioneer for what the world has found – but with cheaper costs of operation – the potential upsides are immense.
On the flip side, what are the main challenges facing the agri industry in Sri Lanka?
Access to land and access to funds. It is not easy for a small scale farmer: even if they have the experience and the ability they don’t have the land. I suggest the government could allocate or lease more land and financial institutions should have a more flexible approach to capital. That’s where Sentro Consulting can help bridge the gap. We can educate the farmers on the investment plan and the prices they can get for their goods and with the support of an entrepreneurial investor behind them a bank is more likely to grant the loan. At present, Sri Lanka has not entered commercial farming in the way countries like India and China have achieved. The quality and quantity of products are challenges for exporters as it’s very small scale. With a medium scale investment, government support in the form of tax benefits and land access, and large corporations pioneering cultivation projects, this could be transformed. Recently a lot of people have been talking about the vegetable prices. If there was more intelligence and strategy planning for farmers, we could educate the farming community on forecasting crop figures and pricing which would reduce volatility. It’s time this kind of modern thinking and practices were implemented in agriculture here.
What goals have you set for Sentro Consulting over the next five years?
While continuing the consulting business for the new entrepreneurs and existing SMEs, we want to move into the role of project consultants on a permanent basis for select clients in the agri export business. We’ve already started this on a small scale by helping clients connect with importers in the Middle East and see huge potential. We can advise companies from feasibility, to company registration, operations, marketing and export.
How do you think the consulting industry will change in 10 years’ time?
I see a lot of growth potential in consulting. At the moment the number of entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka is very low compared to other companies, now the younger generation are more willing to do something on their own and that will change the culture. Perhaps they will work in a corporate role for just 5 years before branching out on their own so when they do, they will be looking for a lot of support and expertise. That’s a role consulting is expertly placed to fill.