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Fuelled by passion and innovation

“No one was ready when the lockdown happened,” reflects Shea Wickramasingha, Group Managing Director of the CBL Group.

HOW THE CBL GROUP ROSE ABOVE THE PANDEMIC.

Sri Lanka’s lockdown came swiftly, as a necessary measure to flatten the curve of COVID19. This put enormous pressure on a fragile food supply chain and a decimated food industry. Keeping a food shortage at bay to support the efforts of the medical frontline was the need of the hour. For a food manufacturer, this meant working in small numbers of critical employees and a complete transformation of complex operations to navigate unchartered terrain.

For the CBL Group, there was only one course of action. As one of Sri Lanka’s largest food manufacturers, relied on by communities in every part of the island, CBL needed to mobilize its brands to take food and nutrition to where it counted the most. The Group also has an employee strength of over 6,000 and was a primary source of income for its large network of farmers and distributorships. So, staying in operation was vital to the wellbeing of these stakeholders.

Changing direction overnight can be a challenge for even the most nimble businesses and leaderships, and this was true for CBL too.

“No one was ready when the lockdown happened,” reflects Shea Wickramasingha, Group Managing Director of the CBL Group. “As an essential service, we needed to ensure that the nation’s food supply remained active. Our employees understood the enormous responsibility on our shoulders. But the economy was at a standstill and only a handful of companies were in operation, so their families were resistant at first. We made it a priority to engage the staff and their families in our safety processes so that they understood the precautions we were taking and could be active partners in the process.”

Some of their most pressing challenges were around the supply chain. The demand for CBL products was increasing.

“Usually, in the month preceding the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, everyone manufactures larger volumes in anticipation of high consumption,” explains Shea. “This year, there was no celebration, but we did have warehouses that were well stocked. That’s what enabled us to have our products in the market when our factories were either shut or working at low capacity.”

But, she continues, “We needed to find new ways to get our products to our consumers because all existing channels restricted us. The government needed to ensure the food supply chain stayed alive. And later, when the districts of Colombo and Gampaha were in lockdown, and the rest of the country was functioning rather normally, we looked for new distribution solutions for these two regions.

We partnered with online delivery platforms like PickMe and Daraz, and, developed our own online platforms for some of our brands allowing us to take our products to our consumers.”

CBL’s journey began in 1968 when its founder and President Emeritus, Mineka Wickramasingha developed a high protein biscuit. He did this for a nationwide programme to combat malnutrition in schoolchildren funded by Care U.S.A. And, Shea says, 50+ years later, CBL prides itself on being a Sri Lankan business that upholds the core family values of caring, quality, innovation and integrity it was built on.

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“He started this business because he wanted our food to make a difference,” she says. “From those humble beginnings, we’ve built market-leading brands that are synonymous with creating growth for Sri Lanka because we have stayed true to our core values.”

CBL has an impressive portfolio of brands ranging from confectionery brands Munchee, Ritzbury, Revello and Tiara to nutrition and convenience brands like Samaposha, Nutriline, Lankasoy, Sera and a range of organic fruits and spices. Shea explains that intensive market research, consumer dialogue and evolving consumer needs are at the forefront of creating CBL brands.

“We cater to every segment of the market by having a diverse and accessible portfolio,” she says. “Our teams are passionate about what we do, and we have a culture of innovation that helps us stay ahead of the curve. An advantage of catering to both local and export markets is that you can grow competencies built in one market to cater to another.

For example, in coconut milk, Sera has 2 ingredients — coconut milk and water. And, this product requires a huge investment to produce high-quality natural coconut milk. Our largest market is in exports, and it would not have been commercially viable to launch Sera Coconut Milk in Sri Lanka if we didn’t have the export market. Likewise, we export Munchee to over 60 countries because of our Sri Lankan market which allows us to grow overseas.” Shea says the Group focuses on building a diverse and balanced portfolio of products.

“As an essential service, we needed to ensure that the nation’s food supply remained active. Our employees understood the enormous responsibility on our shoulders. But the economy was at a standstill and only a handful of companies were in operation, so their families were resistant at first. We made it a priority to engage the staff and their families in our safety processes so that they understood the precautions we were taking and could be active partners in the process.”

That innovation plays a key role in making products that can keep value and nutrition while also delivering convenience.

“For instance, we make our Kola Kanda or herbal porridge range utilizing the ingredients you would use at home and has all the nutrition of a homemade kanda. But it only takes minutes to make,” she says. “Our Munchee Kome Rice Crackers are the first of its kind in Sri Lanka and we work with the Ministry of Agriculture to develop the special variety of rice that is its main ingredient. If you look at our chocolate brands, Ritzbury and Revello, when we launched in the 1990s, we had only a sliver of the market. But, today, we lead the market in chocolates. Lankasoy is the country’s foremost soy brand, and we’re always working to develop great taste choices for Soy, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular vegetarian protein staples. Samaposha and Nutriline promote better breakfast and nutrition habits through quick and easy cereals and nutrition snacks. Across all our brands we’re raising the bar for ourselves when it comes to product innovation.”

Shea adds that this culture of innovation catalyzed CBL’s efforts during the lockdown as operations were re-engineered and transformed to adopt the most stringent safety practices.

“The strength and resilience that the CBL family showed across every one of our subsidiaries is the reason we were able to continue operating during the lockdown. Our teams took every step to keep safe and we worked towards a greater purpose. We had senior managers operating the plants, sales teams operating warehouses and everyone rallying together because we didn’t have the staff to operate. It makes me feel privileged to be a part of this organization and what we do.”

The pandemic has placed a spotlight on the importance of a better balance between the environment we live in and our lifestyles. This applies to the food manufacturing industry and supply chains, too.

“We need to focus on growing things more sustainably and processing them in a way that ensures that we cut waste,” Shea explains. “For example, when we process a coconut, we add 40-60% more value because aside from our coconut milk production, we use every bit of the coconut. We export the coconut water, we use the shells to create activated charcoal or energy, and the husk gets utilized for fertilizer and other uses. As a result, we convert something potentially hazardous to the environment as waste to contribute to the value chain of a coconut.”

Moving forward, as restrictions ease, Shea states that how we chart the course now will define our recovery as a nation, stressing the need for companies and individuals alike to stay safe and follow health guidelines so that we don’t undo the good work of the medical frontline.

She says now more than ever, sustainability must be the main motivator for growth. The CBL Group works with a registered network of over 10,000 conventional and organic farmers supplying locally produced rice, greens, grains and fruits that go into CBL products at guaranteed prices. Dedicated agriculture teams support CBL farmers to face the challenges of the pandemic. CBL also works closely with its retail and distributor partners through its widespread sales teams.

They do this in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to drive digitization, stability and inclusive growth in the sector. The Group’s partnership with SPAR helps train and support independent retailers and entrepreneurs. And, the Group’s focus will remain on strengthening the food supply chain in the months to come, Shea says. The road to recovery for Sri Lankan businesses will be long and winding in the wake of Covid-19.

But, Shea Wickramasingha is optimistic for the future of CBL and the national food industry, as consumers become more involved in good food choices, and manufacturers focus on building sustainable supply chains that will support the country’s economic and socioeconomic growth.

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