At 3am, nothing stirs in the quiet backstreets of the Kirulapone suburb of Colombo. The modest homes of this middle-class neighbourhood sit clustered together amid schools, playgrounds and Buddhist temples. There isn’t anything remarkable about this part of the city at night—except for one home, where the distinct clamour of industrial machinery reverberates till the early hours of morning.

In the courtyard of this single-storey home, painted a startling shade of green, a group of five women and a few men take turns to churn large pots of bubbling kenda—a traditional Sri Lankan porridge that is especially popular for breakfast. There are various types of kenda. The most well-known is kola kenda (kola means leaves in Sinhalese), a Kermit-coloured concoction made with a variety of greens, blended with cooked rice and coconut milk.

The women who are in charge of production at Lanka Hela Osu Pen—or Sri Lanka Herbal Drinks, a small-scale business venture aimed at empowering low-income households—labour through the night to produce four-five kinds of kenda, including karapincha (curry leaf), meneri (millet), sau (sago), kurakkan (finger millet or ragi) and, occasionally, kithul piti (starchy kithul flour, made from the dried pith of the foxtail palm).

Varying in flavour and texture—from vegetal to earthy; and thin to viscous and gummy—the kendas are prepared in keeping with traditional nutritional wisdom, and are generally considered a wholesome way to begin the day. Although there is little scientific literature available on the specific benefits of each type of kenda, some popular ingredients such as gotu kola or the fan-shaped leaves of the Asian pennywort, are considered superfoods.

The core team at Lanka Hela Osu Pen. Photo: Vidya Balachander
The core team at Lanka Hela Osu Pen. Photo: Vidya Balachander

Colombo rises early, and since busy office-goers looking to grab a quick breakfast form the bulk of the customer base, the group works the graveyard shift. Starting shortly after midnight, they work until 5.30am to make approximately 30 litres of kenda, to be sold at 12 standalone stalls and offices across the city.

It is clear that this is a complex operation that requires coordination and collective effort. Sunitha Ranjani Suraweera, 55, dressed in a green T-shirt and a denim skirt, continuously stirs a pot of dull brown kurakkan kenda, while others around her pick large bunches of curry leaves, scrape coconuts using an improvised, motor-run scraper and squeeze the grated coconut to make coconut milk. As the person in charge of making sure all the kendas are perfectly proportioned and seasoned, Suraweera has a hefty responsibility, one that she wears lightly.

After the kendas are cooked, poured into insulated dispensers, and dispatched to stalls across the city, Suraweera gets ready for the second part of her job. For another 6 hours, she manages one of the stalls located nearby, finally wrapping up her day at 12.30pm (most of the other women who make the kenda wrap up their shift at 6am). It is gruelling work, without doubt, but it gives Suraweera, who was a seamstress for 30 years, a sense of ownership and pride. “I like making kenda—it is a good product because it improves health," she says with a smile.

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Lanka Hela Osu Pen is the brainchild of Inoka Jayawardena, a grass-roots political worker-turned-social entrepreneur; Suraweera’s daughter, Danushka Shri Nishanka (who goes as Danu), and her husband, Lasitha Anuradha. The trio kickstarted the project in 2013 to help women become financially independent, with an initial loan of LKR 250,000 (around Rs1 lakh) from a local bank. The initiative picked up steam when they got a larger loan from the state-owned Regional Development Bank. The project was also designed to enable low-income households to overcome debt, which is a widespread problem in Sri Lanka.

A stall selling ‘kenda’. Photo: Vidya Balachander
A stall selling ‘kenda’. Photo: Vidya Balachander

“Many women enter a cycle of taking loan after loan at high rates from moneylenders and microfinance institutions to meet the family’s needs, until they find themselves against a wall," says Jayawardena. “They often don’t know where to turn and feel great shame, so they stay away from home and avoid meeting people." By instilling a sense of entrepreneurial drive, Jayawardena has encouraged the women involved in the project to fight their way out of debt.

For Champa Abeysekara, a 44-year-old mother of four sons, the intervention came at a particularly difficult time. Two years ago, having incurred loans of over LKR 600,000, the family was forced to sell their house and move to a rented place. Eager to give her sons the best academic opportunities, Abeysekara joined the kenda programme.

Abeysekara’s daily routine is a rigorous one. After helping out with the cooking until 6am, she manages a kenda stall until midday. Following this, she runs a juice and snack stall at one of the city’s leading public schools, finally wrapping up her day at 4pm. She earns LKR 600 per day for a 6-hour shift—the standard rate for all the production staff at Lanka Hela Osu Pen. In addition, she earns a commission of LKR 7-10 per cup of kenda sold, and makes some additional money from her canteen sales.

Abeysekara wells up while discussing how far she has come. “Earlier, I felt I didn’t have the strength to deal with my problems," she says. “Now, I am able to earn money and I have the support of the group."

In addition, the various roles she plays during the course of the day have helped her identify a latent skill. Since her stall is located in a part of the city with a high concentration of government offices, she has the opportunity to interact with officials. “I like all aspects of the job but I especially like to talk to customers," she says.

The demands of the job have fostered an environment of interdependence among the group. Suraweera, her daughter and son-in-law live in the same house where the kenda is produced. With all three of her immediate family members busy through the night, it often falls on the other women to care for Inuki, Nishanka and Lasitha Anuradha’s eight-year-old daughter. Abeysekara combs and braids her hair and someone else chips in with breakfast before Inuki is packed off to school at 6am. “The women who work in this kenda project support each other," explains Jayawardena. “In part, that is responsible for their strength."

Unlike an industrial unit, the kenda programme has relatively little machinery—just a couple of industrial blenders, a separate one for leaves and rice, two coconut scrapers, a few large pots and pans and a few dozen insulated steel dispensers that keep the kenda warm. Given this spartan setup, it is clear that a sense of community (and elbow grease) has been instrumental in helping the group to gradually scale up its operations from 20 cups in 2013 to 1,000 cups five years later. The business now also makes a small profit, which covers rent and utility bills.

Over the years, the business has swelled to include more than 70 people involved in different stages of the manufacturing and production process. This includes farmers who grow the green leaves in Embilipitiya, in the south-central part of the country; others who cultivate millets such as meneri and kurakkan; leaf pickers who clean the produce; stall sellers and truck drivers, among others.

Kenda’ is made of assorted greens. Photo: iStockphoto
Kenda’ is made of assorted greens. Photo: iStockphoto

“There is a lot of interest in expanding this model to other provinces," says Jayawardena. “But it is difficult to get loans to re-lend to people to start their own businesses." Besides, the country’s high rate of inflation—a leading cause of debt—has proven to be a hindrance. “This is a very expensive business, because all the raw materials are costly," says Lasitha Anuradha. “Five months ago, 50 coconuts used to cost LKR 2,500. Now they cost LKR 4,500."

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As dawn breaks and the day’s cooking comes to an end, the women offer me a taste of the freshly prepared kendas. The kola kenda made of gotu kola is savoury, the herbaceous flavour of the leaves enhanced by creamy coconut milk. It is served with a small square of hakuru or palm jaggery. The meneri kenda, made of proso or white millets, is mildly sweet, while the sau kenda—my favourite—has plump grains of sabudana or sago and boiled mung beans generously enriched with jaggery. The kendas are expertly seasoned and cooked, and a testament to the skill of the women who make it.

It is only fitting that for the women of the Lanka Hela Osu Pen, the biggest reward for their labour is an intangible—and unquantifiable—one. “Earlier, I had a lot of worries," says Abeysekara. “Now I have peace of mind."

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