Supplier Visit: Lanka Kade
Thursday, 24 October 2019 | Joanna
We love working with Lanka Kade - their commitment to helping people in rural areas of Sri Lanka has been an inspiration to us on our fair trade journey, so when we were given the opportunity to visit some of the people who make their toys we jumped at the chance. Joanna has been conducting monitoring visits for the UK's Fair Trade Network (BAFTS) for several years and this year Lanka Kade was selected for a visit.
It was part of a longer holiday celebrating a big birthday and we spent our first week visiting the historic centre of the country where there are ancient ruins of cities used for millennia in what Sri Lankans call "The Time of the Kings". We immersed ourselves in the history, culture and wildlife of this fascinating country and by the end of the week we completely understood why Sri Lanka had captured the heart of Diane when she set up Lanka Kade 25 years ago with her Sri Lankan husband, Upul.
Diane had planned to join us for the second week but a medical emergency kept her in the UK - we're glad to hear she's fine now - so it came to Upul to show us round.
Our first port of call was the Lanka Kade Export Office which lies just to the north of Colombo. The modern office block and warehouse is the heart of the operation and wherever you look there are trophies and photos of awards being given to the company. We in the fair trade community have long known Lanka Kade as a pioneer and gold standard of fair trade toy making, but it was reassuring to see that the Sri Lankan government also value their efforts.
Lanka Kade has been dealing with most of the producer groups for ten, fifteen even twenty years so Upul knows them really well. We were struck by the warm and friendly welcome he and we received from the workers. The producer groups we visited were quite close to one another geographically which makes it easy to arrange the New Year Party which Lanka Kade organises to bring together all their workers every couple of years. They work in a rural area where there are no shops so when they want to eat something they can't grow for themselves they have to look out for the bread man, the vegetable man and the fish man who all call a few times a week. The bread man even has a chime like an ice-cream van. Moving around the area we saw several of the schools which benefit from the Lanka Kade Educational Foundation. This is a charity which provides milk drink for children at primary school in these very rural areas. Making sure children have something nutritious every day is one of the best ways to ensure that they make the most of their education and continue in school.
The first producer we visited is run by Vijaysinghe and his family. Vijaysinghe's son is an electrical engineering graduate and they make all the equipment so it's specifically designed to make Lanka Kade toys. The cutting workshop is downstairs and away from the wood shavings and dust upstairs you find the screen printing workshop. This was staffed by both men and women working in pairs to hand print and dry hundreds of toys, one at a time.
It was incredible to see the products I'm used to seeing on the shelves lining up and taking shape before my eyes. Everyone was really happy in their work, laughing and joking and we were treated to a cup of tea and a piece of delicious cake - even better!
The second place we visited was one of three workshops run by Rujith, employing over 30 permanent staff and around 40 home workers who take pieces home to sand them. I knew that Rujith was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer a couple of years ago - Upul said he was not expected to survive - and it was wonderful to see him looking so well. Apparently his last medical appointment was two weeks ago and he was given the all clear, which is fantastic news. The workshop was buzzing with excitement about the upcoming marriage of Rujith's niece. The bride's mother (Rujith's sister) runs the painting workshop and all the staff were all given the day off on Friday to attend the wedding. Upul went as well and apparently the highlight was when a large monitor lizard decided to join in the fun and raid the buffet.
One of the best stories I heard on my visit was about the young autistic lad who was busy spraying when we arrived at Rujith's cutting workshop. His parents didn't understand his condition and didn't even bother sending him to school because they assumed he would never make anything of himself. He's one of the most conscientious and focused workers they have ever had, and now he earns more than his parents, finally they are taking an interest in him. Fair trade is all about supporting people into work who might otherwise struggle and this was a prime example of seeing the potential in someone and giving them the support they need to make the best of their life.
We visited the wood yard which is owned by Lanka Kade. They cure and cut almost all the wood used by their producers, deliver it along with the presentation boxes and collect the final orders a couple of times a week. This not only frees up the producers from having to worry about sourcing the right sort of materials and time spent organising couriers etc, it means Lanka Kade can keep quality consistent. They are currently building a new wood yard near to the famous Elephant Orphanage near Kandy and this will help them keep up with increasing demand and employ more people.
Lanka Kade's own workshop employs several people in skilled roles as well as cutting and processing timber. The only woman I saw using a varnish spraying gun was working at this workshop. Apparently she was employed as a sander and said she would like to have a go at varnishing. She has never looked back. Most of the workshops we visited have a range of different roles - sanding, varnishing, packaging etc, etc and employees do all these activities at different times of the day depending where they are most needed. The exception is screen printing which is a skilled job and attracts a higher wage. Lanka Kade provides screen printing training to anyone who wants it and this is really popular with both men and women workers. Hand painting is still required for small or awkward shaped items like skipping rope handles and spinners and this is all done by Lanka Kade's own skilled painters. There is a small garden next to the workshop, and we were treated to bananas freshly cut off the tree.
Our final visit was to Wasanthi's workshop. She lives on the edge of farmland and a Sri Lankan air force base, so her workers sit in amongst mango and rambutan trees with the sound of fighter jets high above them. This means she can't expand but she seems really content with her workers. I was especially pleased to see our best selling letters being printed here.
Wasanthi made us a delicious lunch which in true Sri Lankan style would have fed us for a week. If you've never had salt and pepper on pineapple you haven't lived!
We had an amazing time seeing the products we know and love emerge from timber lying in a wood yard, cured, cut, varnished, sanded, painted and packaged up and ready to go into a 40 foot shipping container and on to our stall. We must thank Upul, Diane and all the workers and producers who gave up their time to organise the visit show us round and help us understand what goes into the amazing toys we sell.
Sri Lanka is a stunningly beautiful country with warm, friendly and funny people who couldn't have made us more welcome. It's six months since the Easter Sunday bomb attacks on churches and hotels which left over 200 people dead and sadly at times it felt like the terrorists won. We stayed in lovely, big hotels where we were the only guests, ate in restaurants where they couldn't put a full menu together because they didn't know whether anyone would come in that day. If you are thinking about visiting Sri Lanka, there has never been a better time to do it. They really value your faith in their hospitality and we promise you won't regret it.
Now, where can we go next?