On an otherwise reasonable evening, more than 1,000 people packed an auditorium in Boulder, Colorado, for the culmination of the 2012 Unreasonable Institute. They came to see 23 ventures present their solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Samanthi Ratnayake, Founder of Lili Dairy, shares how her venture empowers rural women to become dairy farmers in male-dominated societies.

Lili Dairy exists to help women in rural Sri Lanka generate their own income and move out of poverty. Our goal is to get a milk cow, along with veterinary and support services, to women in 50 rural villages across the country. A village with 500 cows can produce 8.6 metric tons of cheese annually and create an extra $500,000 in income. By organizing and training women, Lili Dairy helps build self-confidence in women and provide income for rural families in a sustainable and scalable way.

What is the urgent social or environmental need you’re addressing?

Though Sri Lanka is experiencing massive growth in its tourism industry, the benefits of this growth are not reaching many of the country’s poorest people. Women in Sri Lanka in particular have been excluded from this male-dominated market, leaving critical problems of female food, security, health and education unaddressed. Women are often forced into a socially submissive position and lack the empowerment they need to raise their voices and seek solutions to these problems.

At the same time, Sri Lanka, with abundant grassland, access to water, regular seasons and ideal humidity levels has immense potential to become a great dairy producer. Yet this potential is being ignored. Most farmers lack the technical knowledge they need to become dairy farmers. Even with that knowledge, many would still choose not to produce milk as there is a severe decrease in demand for liquid milk during the rainy season, creating an unstable market. Because of this, Sri Lanka currently imports over 80% of its milk products in the form of powdered milk, which is not as nutrient-rich as fresh liquid milk, and oftentimes still prohibitively expensive for many families. We have a solution.

What is your solution to this need? Describe your business strategy.

Our solution is a two-step process. First, we teach women in rural communities the technical skills they need to become great dairy farmers. We then also provide them with access to microfinance loans that they can use to purchase a cow and the required materials for dairy production. We buy their milk and pay them a stable and reasonable price every 15 days, so that they have a reliable income with which to repay their loans. We pay them based on the quality of their milk, not the market price, so that they have incentive to focus on their farms and to use the skills we have taught them.

Second, we take the milk we buy from rural women, which cannot be sold year-round, and turn it into delicious cheese, which can be sold to the ever-growing hotels and restaurants all year long. Because over 90% of the cheese in Sri Lanka is imported, we are able to sell our domestic cheese at highly competitive prices. Through this process, we empower women by giving them access to the market, teaching them valuable farming and monetary skills, and providing them with the reliable income they need to gain financial stablity. This, in turn, helps them raise their voices and be heard.



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The Unreasonable Institute arms entrepreneurs creating solutions to the world’s biggest social and environmental problems with the mentorship, capital, and networks they need to do so.

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