Plant-based entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka:Dinali Dandeniya and Anushka Kahawela share their experiences 

June 25, 2022

On 21 June 2022, SLYCAN Trust conducted an online webinar with speakers from the food systems cohort of the EthicalX Accelerator Programme. The speakers were Dinali Dandeniya – the Co-founder of Cafe Kumbuk and Founder of Mama D’s vegan artisanal range – and Anushka Kahawela, from Veganly Life.

SLYCAN Trust’s EthicalX team conducted this event with the objective of sharing success stories of entrepreneurs and the ethical, sustainable, and climate-friendly aspects they practice in their respective businesses. The discussion revolved around what entrepreneurship means to them, challenges faced by these businesses, and the driving force behind making their brands ethical, sustainable, and climate friendly. 

Experience sharing with Dinali Dandeniya

Dinali Dandeniya co-founded Cafe Kumbuk with her daughter and recently also launched the Mama D’s vegan artisanal range, which is available in Cafe Kumbuk and at select outlets. Dinali was born and bred in the United Kingdom. Nine years ago, she had wanted to settle down in Sri Lanka and try something new and self-fulfilling. A corporate trainer by profession, Dinali ventured into the food and beverage industry by quite a natural instinct as she was already a skilled cook who had travelled to many countries sampling different types of cuisine from a young age.

Entrepreneurship to her means the opportunity to be creative, innovative, and think outside the box while also giving back to society, be it a service or product. She is a people person keen on building relationships and networks from people of all walks of life. She has also learned a lot from her own daughter and together embarked on a journey of learning how to brand, redefine, and promote themselves, adapting to the demands of the market and technology. She explained that the entrepreneurship mindset was about collaboration, activation, and the ability to recognise people’s strengths and weaknesses, tapping into the resources around you. Learning to be flexible and adapting to those changes are also crucial.

The present economic crisis in Sri Lanka has made it very challenging, especially in terms of focusing on the sustainable aspect of the business. However, the challenges had provided her an opportunity to engage in growth innovation and learn new skills. Through her journey, she has redefined what being socially conscious means to her – that is to be conscious of what she is doing and impacts on the planet, people, country, and culture.

According to Dinali, the specialty of her products is that all ingredients are sourced domestically as far as possible. She admits that some of the ethical aspects of the business are hard to achieve, such as being 100% plastic free. Therefore, she tries to adopt a 70% plastic-free policy at the minimum. During the economic crisis, she had ensured that she did not allow the prices of her products from the vegan range to hike and intends to wait for the economy to stabilise before she scales up her range. This approach is on order to promote the importance of veganism in living a longer and healthier life. Irrespective of how Mama D’s vegan range caters to a niche market, getting even a small fraction of people to drop meat is an achievement. 

Experience sharing with Anushka Kahawela 

Veganly Life is a family business of the Kahawelas, who are all IT professionals. Making vegan desserts is a hobby which they turned into a business venture. Veganly Life takes pride in its products, which contain no added sugar, are vegan and gluten free, with no cross contamination, and are sold in sustainable packaging. From strategic planning to customer delivery, all business operations are done within the family. 

Anushka pointed out that traditional Sri Lankan sweets were in fact rooted in veganism as they were made from ingredients such as coconut milk. They started off by sharing recipes and samples with friends and family to obtain feedback before including the recipe in the product range. 

Upon identifying that there was a genuine need for vegan cakes, sweets, and savouries in the market, they received a push from the food industry where vegan only restaurants/products comprise a niche market. The passion and drive to make the business a success grew gradually as they tried their own recipes and made different food items, which were well received by their family and friends and initial set of customers. 

The Veganly Life philosophy is founded on how veganism is the combination of non-harming animals, planet, and oneself. They try to use as many organic ingredients as possible in their products and are raising awareness on making ethical food choices. Taking pride in how they do not condone the suffering of animals as no ingredients are derived from them, the brand is also founded on the concept of ‘equality for everyone’. 

In recent times it has been difficult to find organic ingredients and Veganly Life is currently working on overcoming that struggle, while focusing on carrying out research on their ingredients and finding sources which are ethical and climate friendly with much perseverance. They have overcome the many challenges faced through constant trial and error, to find the best alternatives to ingredients that are not readily available. On occasion they are challenged by their own customers who demand unique product requirements and Veganly Life trials the product first before sending the final product to the customer. 

The Veganly Life business is entirely home based and the family is currently in the process of growing the network of suppliers, which is also challenging. However, they live by this motto – ‘tough situations don’t last, tough people do, so keep going, you can move mountains if you have passion and dedication’. 

Both Dinali Dandeniya and Anushka Kahawela believe that veganism is a niche market due to affordability, but there a lot of room for people to enter and take an active role in selling vegan products. Although the market is niche, the audience is wide as one can always reach out to people who are passionate about animal welfare, the planet, and the benefits of a vegan diet. 

SLYCAN Trust launched the EthicalX programme in January 2022 to enhance Sri Lanka's start-up ecosystem and strengthen ethical, sustainable, and climate-friendly entrepreneurship on all levels. Through Climate & Innovation Hubs, EthicalX provides capacity-building and technical support for entrepreneurs at various stages of their business development, with a special focus on plant-based food systems.

The EthicalX Food Systems Cell comprises talented and well-rounded entrepreneurs with a common interest in enhancing their capacities, expanding their network, and promoting sustainable and ethical food systems through their enterprises

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About the Author

SLYCAN Trust is a non-profit think tank. It has been a registered legal entity in the form of a trust since 2016, and a guarantee limited company since 2019. The entities focus on the thematic areas of climate change, adaptation and resilience, sustainable development, environmental conservation and restoration, social justice, and animal welfare. SLYCAN Trust’s activities include legal and policy research, education and awareness creation, capacity building and training, and implementation of ground level action. SLYCAN Trust aims to facilitate and contribute to multi-stakeholder driven, inclusive and participatory actions for a sustainable and resilient future for all.