Milk for ‘Wholesome’ Empowerment: Life after War
At 25 years she is the General Manager of the Poonakary Livestock Breeders’ Cooperative Society (PLIBCO) in Killinochchi, Sri Lanka. She has the overall responsibility for managing both the revenue and cost elements of 10 Milk Collection Centers of the Cooperative. She not only oversees the Cooperative's marketing and sales functions but also the day-to-day operations.
Smart, skillful, determined and passionate – Meet Thevaseelan Keetha.
Newly married Keetha is the second eldest in a family of four girls. Growing up in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, she and her family were forced into displacement due to the near-thirty year civil war in 2009; a war which claimed the life of her older sister. “My family and I had to spend a year at the camps where there were thousands of displaced people with us. I was determined however not to let this derail my education and so I spent that one year studying in the camps. Fortunately for me there were many teachers in the camp, so we were able to continue our education there.”
Having completed her primary and secondary education, albeit under trying circumstances, Keetha was employed at an international non-governmental organization for six months and thereafter was recruited to the PLIBCO after a competitive selection process. Although she was determined and passionate about her new job, she admits she knew nothing about being a General Manager. “Everything I do now, I taught myself on-the-go. Through programmes conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) I was able to receive basic management training which helped a great deal but other elements of my job I learnt on my own because I really wanted to excel at what I do.”
The economy of Killinochchi and other neighbouring areas in the Northern Provinces bore the brunt of the war, stifling growth and expansion. Following the end of the war, most of the local industries were found to be lagging far behind in terms of infrastructure, technology, skills, access to credit and market shares that are required for growth. Particularly in the Poonakary Divisional Secretariat Division, majority of the families undertake dairy farming as their source of income but due to challenges of low productivity, these dairy families continue to live below the poverty line.
PLIBCO is one of 15 Producer Organizations selected by UNDP through the Northern Livelihood Development Project (NLDP) funded by the Government of Norway to assist them in uplifting their production. This has in turn increased the livelihoods of the 720 dairy families who are members of this Organisation.
Through this Project, a milk collection network centered around three of the ten milk collection centers, was established and linked with Nestle Lanka Pvt Ltd, a private sector company. The Project also introduced methods to improve milk production and begin value-addition processes. Learning visits and in-house trainings were conducted, where dairy producers learned how to enhance production and make value added-products such as curd, yoghurt, milk toffee and ‘lolly juice’. They also learnt how to improve hygiene and extend the shelf life of the products. A much needed cold storage unit was set up at the Mulankavil Collection center which has enabled farmers to store excess milk in a hygienic manner and therefore reduce post-harvest losses. Today, these 10 Centers receive a total of over 1300 litres of milk daily and have experienced an almost 277% increase in their monthly income since UNDP intervention.
As a result of years of war and displacement, women in the North were faced with a number of new challenges that hampered their capacity to recover. While a large number of women were forced to become the sole breadwinners of their families despite having no prior experience, skills or training, others remained sidelined in communities. To enhance women’s livelihoods and social wellbeing it is imperative to include them in local decision making processes, a practice challenged by social and cultural inhibitions widely prevalent in the region, which is why UNDP is focused on bringing women to the forefront in decision making positions. As such, Keetha is our role model. 25 year old young Keetha is more than competent to carry out her duties and report to male dominant Board of Directors at the Cooperative. She is passionate about making it to the top and hopes that someday she can use the ‘wholesome’ experience she has gained to help her husband expand his private business. “My husband is very supportive of what I do and someday I hope to use my experience to help him run a successful business”