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Treading the path less travelled and working in a place that can be the envy of many considering the beauty of its environs, two exceptionally unique personalities have now found themselves embarking on a career that is about to change their lives and that of the tea plantations of Sri Lanka.
Business Times spoke with two young women employed at Finlays with a vision to changing the course of the future of plantation that was once considered a male-dominated sector. Finlays has taken on the task of training young women to join the plantations.
The headstrong and effervescent Assistant Superintendent of the Waldemar Estate of Udapussellawa Plantations Priyanthi Makeswaranathan, asserted: “I believe nothing is impossible – if there is a will there is a way” insisting that a woman is capable of handling this job with the same integrity as men do.
Since graduating with a degree in Agriculture Technology and Management from the University of Peradeniya, she has been seeking out opportunities of working in a challenging environment by multi-tasking. That’s when the opening at Finlays set her mind to exploring the area less taken by others of her kind.
At present she has to work with around 306 estate workers and 24 staff and she has found them to be cooperative. “I’m neither tough nor friendly,” she said noting that this helps in reducing the conflicts and tension on the plantations.
Priyanthi has had her fair share of the labour unrest on the plantations and pointed out “if there is any labour complaints firstly I will ask them for all the details and then discuss with them and search for possible solutions and its impact on both sides and find out how to reach a solution without violating the company rules and regulations.” She noted that they were compelled to work within the limited resources in achieving the goals.
However, it is not smooth sailing, she noted explaining that she saw first-hand a difference in the sub cultures on the estates when compared with the corporate offices in Colombo.
During her initial six months training she began life on the plantations in October 2018 at the Newburg estate and was subsequently appointed on May 1 and has now completed about a year and 10 months at Waldemar Estate.
Commenting on working during the lockdown in 2019, she said, “We worked during that time as well – but we did take precautions and create awareness on basic health education and carried out continuous monitoring as a result of which we didn’t have any major issues upto now.”
Coming out onto the fields during the COVID-19 crisis also helped to motivate the workers, she said.
Hailing from a farming family in Jaffna, she is proud of her roots and what she has come to become today. Since her childhood growing up with a brother and sister her aim has always been to score higher than her brother in all aspects highlighting that women can supersede men.
“I competed with my brother so my parents gave me their fullest support,” she said and although they were concerned about her participating in some tough games like taekwondo and boxing they continued to be by her side. “That is why I have the extra support from my father,” she said.
Priyanthi, always an enthusiast wanted to become an all-rounder and in this respect entered the sports field in athletics while still in school at the Vembadi Girl’s High School, Jaffna and gaining the bronze medal for 10, 000 metres at the district level meets and while at the Peradeniya University she clinched the bronze medal for inter-university taekwondo meets. Later she entered the national boxing championships and she has been the only female participant from the Northern Province.
“I like to do anything wherever I am and achieve many new things and this has helped me in the plantation sector as there are tough and rough conditions they face upto in their daily work,” she said.
There is no stopping Priyanthi, she has already set her goals higher and wants to complete a Masters in Business Administration and will be looking at balancing her professional and personal lives, engaging in sports and at some time in future settle down, have children of her own and care for her parents as well. But she did not skip a beat, insisting “but I don’ like to lose my passion in sports and career.”
She is grateful to Finlays and the Newburgh Estate Superintendent Richard Ohlmus for giving her the right exposure and the opportunity to prove her mettle.
Finlays also spearheaded Ms. Navoda Vijayangani as Assistant Superintendent of Alnwick Estate who took an instant liking for a life on the plantations as she has had her first taste of it during her higher studies at the Uva-Wellassa University when she was carrying out research work for her degree in Field Technology and Value Addition.
“I was interested in the work and wondered if I could work in this kind of environment and how well I can contribute to the plantation sector from what I studied,” she said.
At the start the biting cold weather and tough conditions was a complete contrast to her hometown in Ampara where the family is engaged in farming. “My family assisted me and my sister to select the jobs we like.”
“Though most companies are looking at the profitability but what we understand on the field is that while we need to look at the profit there are certain agricultural practices that need to be deployed and engage in sustainability by caring for the plants to develop them,” she explained.
Looking into the future, Navoda pointed out the need to engage more in research and development and study the new findings available out there. An enthusiast in research she had the intention of also working and studying with the Tea Research Institute where she had her initial exposure during her university years. There she carried out research on conventional and organic tea in comparison with soil conditions and yield among other parametres.
Navoda aims to become a consultant where her skills in research could be put to good use as she also intends on studying further in the area of Plant Protection Technology. “I like to engage in more studies to improve knowledge and apply it accordingly.”
During her training period Navoda has had the opportunity to obtain the necessary guidance from Park Estate Superintendent Ajith Peiris in helping her to foray into the plantations.
She is hopeful that other young women like her will find their place as well to work on the plantations insisting however there are issues they face particularly in relation to workers, “but we continue with the work the next day,” she said.
Navoda explained that like most parents her parents were also concerned about working on the plantations “but we have not faced major issues.” For Navoda this is the kind of job she will not find in a corporate office and in this respect is ready to take on the challenges backed by the continuous programmes for training and awareness creation provided to them.
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