Imal Silva is a Sri Lankan-Nigerian entrepreneur, who has resided in Nigeria for over 35 years. The Sri Lankan-Nigerian, who is also married to a Nigerian, in this interview with TOPE SUNDAY and KEHINDE OSASONA, speaks about his obsession with Nigeria, her foods and many opportunities that abound in the country.
150 youths for fusion, art exhibition on cross cultural visual expression
What I try to do is to look for how to get partnership, because it is better that we join hands and tap into each others’ energy, skills and know-how. One of the things I did was to work with one of my friends who have a company. I also reach out to young people.
What we did was to organise a booth camp for young people looking for jobs. In doing that, we reached out to about a hundred youths and identified more than fifteen youths who had exceptional skills.
While in the boot camp, they were taken through different kinds of training on pure art and business skills. They were trained on art work design, fashion, painting, bead making, wig making and different forms of applied and fashion arts. The contestants preached their ideas to us with about six judges on entrepreneur, who are experts in the particular field of the contestants, and who could see the viability and practicability of that idea as an economically viable one.
We also tried to reward competence and exceptional skills, entrepreneurial skills, competence and a prize of N100, 000. I was fortunate that my partner organisation was able to donate money for the prize.
I was shocked that 70 per cent of the 15 or 16 contestants had hawked in the streets previously. The ones that went to the university may not even have qualified to enter this set. The hunger and tenacity of these ones were exceptional. If tomorrow some of these contestants attained some certain level of success, people will wonder how. Let’s be honest, not everybody is a thief!
There are a lot of people with real, genuine ability, but it is just that they don’t have access to resources, knowledge, skills, connections and the wherewithal. I actually wrote about this on the social media.
In carrying out this task; I am also reaching out to artists l have worked with in the past for them to know the situation on ground. I am also on the verge of acquiring a location, because art requires a physical place.
Meanwhile, I am using a hospital premises to showcase our art works. Whoever comes in will see the artists’ works on the walls, where we displayed them to start creating awareness of our location from our business point. The art works beautify the walls and give a particular perception about life. For instance, an art work about a hotel shows that it doesn’t have to look drab, sad and boring. In essence, art completely changes the mindset of a person.
So far, these have been my modest contributions to art, especially with the booth camp. I am happy that my partner organisation took these seriously, and are even planning for a one million naira prize ahead of more editions of the exhibitions and the winners will be brought together to see which of them will advance to more level of competence and capability.
I am presently working on an e-commerce site for the art community, but it is still at the ground level. As am speaking with different organisations for possible partnership, I have already given the concept to the group and I am doing the costing now because we can’t just introduce an e-commerce site to the art community without getting them used to the economic aspect of it.
What it implies is that, in carrying the artist along, they need to be trained on how to market their product to some degree. They need to know the value of marketing their product. Hopefully, I will hold an exhibition and short training in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. I will want artists to see their works from an entrepreneurial and economic point of view. They will put their works on the e-commerce site and see how they will add to the values in society and community.
It should not just be an artwork, but does it have a meaning beyond that? For example, if you see a mother and child in an artwork, it can also mean maternal well-being, maternal health, value of children, child or maternal mortality, etc.
The intent is just to imagine the social side of an artwork. So, if we are to carry artists along, it is better we embark on a journey and not just jump things on them, as it is always the case. It is not just to hold an event and then let the idea to die after the event.
Motivation as a non-Nigerian from Sri Lanka
Everybody has a calling and purpose in life. The more you pray for it, the more it becomes clearer for you to set aside distractions and face your purpose. I want to touch on the concept of sustainability. People hear about sustainable development every day, but they don’t know what it means. It is the balance of a culture, empowerment and economy of the people. If you don’t have a proper balance of this three in any society or anywhere in the world, there is going to be problems sooner or later.
So, when you talk about the concept of development, there must be these three considered together: the culture or lifestyle of the people, the economy and environment. If one is given more attention, at the expense of the other two, it will cause an imbalance. People have different emphasis in their own expressions and I concentrate more on the art and culture side and show the value of it on the economic side. There are people that concentrate on the environment. I want to prove that art and culture has a very strong role to play in societal development.
For instance, if you discover an artwork of people that existed years ago, mere looking at it will tell you what they looked like, the kind of place they lived, the kind of clothes they wore. It is generally a virtual document, if not textual. That’s why I put a lot of emphasis on art and culture.
Indeed, I came from a far-away place, but the truth is; wherever you live and spend most of your life becomes home to you. Though I was born in Sri Lanka, I have been in Nigeria for 37 years and my art is heavily influenced by African interests, because it is where I grew up. Art will help us to change our society to a better one. It is beyond mere aesthetics, what you put on the wall or table, to open windows and channels of communication of values. You can speak through your artworks. If you can speak through a song and dance, you can speak through a virtual artwork.
What to improve upon
The opportunities are too many. When I travel outside the country, people come to me in different places to request to come and do business in Nigeria and with Nigerians. You will then realise that they see what we don’t see. They are ready to come with their money to invest and not being forced. For instance, the Chinese are coming with their money and are planning 50 to 200 years and not five or ten years.
Rather than thinking about what our children will eat today, like the Chinese, we should be planning for our great grandchildren. So, these are opportunities that I cannot exhaustively enumerate. However, the question remains; are people prepared to see crises as opportunities?
When there is a problem, there is an opportunity for you to provide a solution to those problems. But when people see a problem and run away from it, then they don’t want to proffer solutions. They feel that it is too difficult to proffer solutions, but there are people that are looking at the same problem and thinking of what they can make out of it.
When you get solution to a problem, money and income follow. Do you know how many Nigerians in the Diaspora are itching to come back to this country? They want to come back, but they don’t know how. They have the problem of how to integrate with society because they have been away for so long. So, I am even looking at how to build a channel for those in the Diaspora to see how they can connect with those in Nigeria, because they have a lot of skills and resources, whereas there are people in Nigeria looking for just the same things, who have the tenacity, resilience. So, I will bring the two parties together and make the necessary connections.
Whether my papers show that I am a Sri Lankan or Nigerian, I have lived for 35 years in this country, that is 80 per cent of my live in Nigeria, and cannot call myself a foreigner. Nigeria is a rich, diverse country with many potential, but it behoves on us to know how to harness the diversity and tap into our potentials. In terms of the different cultures, if you are in the south west and can’t come to the north, then you don’t know Nigeria. Just like easterners, westerners and southerners, you won’t appreciate the diverse cultures of people in different part of the country if you can’t go there. Therefore, the potentials are huge, but we are looking at and concentrating on the wrong things. We are concentrating on problems and not on the solutions.
Nigerians all over the country are hospitable and will welcome you with open arms no matter who you are. Regrettably, some people take advantage of them. Nevertheless, some of us that have lived for thirty or forty years in Nigeria cannot stay outside for so long without missing the country. This is because, when you travel outside, things are structured in a way that you feel choked, but here in Nigeria, you are just yourself. Nigeria it’s just like a free country where you can live your honest life without feeling restricted or pressured, as it were.
Nigerian food preferences
I grew up in Yoruba land and ate Yoruba food for most of my life. I like ewedu with egusi or amala with ewedu. But when I moved to Abuja, they were not readily available, so I started experimenting with other delicacies. 28 years of my life was spent in Yoruba land, so it is natural that I will be biased when it comes to choosing between delicacies in Nigeria.
I met my wife when we were both in the secondary school. She was Head Girl of a school close to my own school and she was also a member of a church I attended. We were also family friends. But I have always admired her, as a responsible and serious-minded girl. She won The Governor’s Prize as the best secondary school student and won a scholarship in medical school. When we got married, I challenged her to win the postgraduate scholarship prize in West Africa College of Physicians and she actually did that coming first in the examinations.
Bracing courtship challenges
Though our parents were good friends, immediately the issue of marriage came up, her family found it very difficult to accept. I believe they thought that I will disappear with their daughter.
However, one day, during a family meeting, the youngest of their family member, posed a very pertinent question that changed the whole narrative before they now gave their consent, here we are today.
Connecting with Nigerians in Diaspora
Some people have lived in abroad for almost forty years, just like me that has lived in Nigeria for many years. So, there are very foreign and different in their reasoning, even though they are Nigerians by birth, so they want to see structures and technologies to be up-to-date to know the challenges and proffer solutions. That is why I am touring round states and visiting other artists and organisations to see differences and appeal to them to put structures in places to make things more organised.
This will actually help us to be marketable whether in Nigeria or in foreign countries. The thing is; I always look for partnership in order to combine our ideas for the best outcome. I have spoken with people and we are working on creating a platform whereby we can connect with platforms created by other people in different places. Some of those in the Diaspora have already started coming back to invest through our combined efforts. However, we are just starting to build these platforms and connections, which take time.
Interfacing with people
I have a management consulting firm and part of our job is to train people. I have always been a teacher. I have worked with school administration for many years. I came from a family of teachers. My parents are lecturers, just like my wife, but capacity building means we can have channels of training and retraining. How many foreigners do you see visibly at Shoprite? It is run by trained Nigerians and it runs like clockwork.
Nigerians can do anything if they are trained. It is proper to put checks and balances so that everybody will know his responsibility. In the past, you would see foreigners working in construction companies, but nowadays it is possible to train Nigerians and give them a fair deal.
Some partners are ready to work, improve and make necessary changes if they have to, because the average Nigerian does not like to play second fiddle to anyone. They want to be the best of what they do, so I don’t have a problem with SMEs.
I have groups in different cities like Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja and i am satisfied with their performances. In a certain group, you see a core of people willing to progress, but are limited often. Though the government release funds and resources at intervals, but does it get down to the people? Do they have the necessary training? There are instances where SMEs fail because of some factors like follow up and monitoring.
Bridging the gap
We base our decisions and policies on feedback. Have you listened to people on their needs and tailored your services towards those needs? If you have needs-based assessment, then it will help us guide our policies and interventions in a more precise manner. In bridging the gap, I meet people who are out there physically. If you ask those people up there or their representatives, there meet with people online and not physically.
We must not meet everyone physically, but there should be some level of interaction, because they may not necessarily give you a satisfactory feedback through an online form. You can meet with people to find out what is happening. You can say you gave them five million naira, but what happens after 3, 6, 12 months? Where are there now?
What are their challenges?
There are different sets of people in the business of entrepreneur. You have the government, SMEs, customers consuming the goods and services, suppliers, including consultants, expertise or raw materials, NGOs, foreign investors. Is it possible to make adequate linkages, where and when? In order to have success stories on SMSE, I think these questions matters.