The 26-year civil war that started in Sri Lanka in 1983 left thousands widowed, homeless and without livelihoods.
It left Selina PremKumar with a dream to lift smallholder dairy farmers out of poverty.
With donations from Kiwis, advice from New Zealand dairy farmers and support from aid and development organisation Tearfund NZ and the NZ government, her dream became a reality and she is now changing the lives of thousands of war victims.
PremKumar is the driving force behind Tearfund NZ’s farming and enterprise project and partner, Yugashakthi, in Sri Lanka.
The project started with just eight farmers making an average of $15 a month. It now has more than 4500 farmers registered making an average NZ$150 a month.
These dairy farmers can now feed their families, clothe their children, afford medical care and send their children to school.
PremKumar is in NZ connecting with farmers and families who have helped make her dream come true, changing the lives of thousands in her home country.
“I remember the military shooting down our street. My mother took us both, my brother and me, into a room. She was kneeling and praying.
“We could hear the men opening the gates and trying to get into the houses. After some time, the shooting stopped.”
PremKumar’s biggest fear growing up was the fear of death. She was caught in a crossfire twice and experienced sleeping out in the middle of nowhere.
The Sri Lankan civil war officially ended in 2009.
“The war took a lot from my people. Almost everyone lost a loved one.”
PremKumar’s near-death experiences gave her the courage to stand up and be a voice for her people. She created something sustainable that would help her community.
Yugashakthi is a for-profit farmers company formed by Tearfund, to help vulnerable farmers after the war to get a sustainable income.
PremKumar wanted to do something for smallholder dairy farmers.
“They are poor, and they don’t have sufficient means to educate their children or to feed their family three times a day.
“I wanted to do something for them, so that is who Yugashakthi is working with.”
Traditionally, Sri Lankan farmers have three main ways of creating an income: paddy (rice), fishing and dairy.
Dairy farming had never been a main source of income.
PremKumar saw dairying as successful because it can help spread the income throughout the year.
“It is also a good means of living for women who lost fathers or husbands in the war.
“Many children suffer from malnourishment as a result of a lack of protein in their diet, and milk is a good easy source of protein and a traditional part of every family’s daily food.
Paddy cultivation has seasons and fishing relies on the condition of the sea.
In 2010, the NZ government and Tearfund NZ came on board with the project.
A year later, a small dairy programme was piloted. Eight farmers supplied 250 litres of milk and earned on average $20 per month.
“We started with simple training looking at the feeding, breeding and animal health.
“It’s a simple thing. But because it was not their primary income, they were not really bothered.”
“My heart was always for the wider community, especially for women and children who were traumatised and lost so much in the war.
“I lost my childhood because of the war; I didn’t want another child to go through that. I wanted to see children safe and protected.”
She also wanted to see women empowered.
“We started training them in confidence building. The small groups provided the space for women to talk about their struggles and find solutions.
Now there are 7500 children in youth groups, 1500 women in savings groups and 4500 farmers producing 500,000L of milk a month and earning Sri Lankan 10 million rupees, about $150.
“We did it village by village. We introduced new techniques, knowledge. Not just about breeding, feeding and animal health but increasing milk quality and production.
“We lobbied for farmers’ rights, we upscaled, we increased milk quality and we got the right price.”
Yugashakthi now has its own brand producing cheese, curd, yoghurt and ice cream.
“Yugashakthi stood up for the rights and protection of smallholder dairy farmers, women and children.
“It has been life-changing, given confidence. It is feeding and educating children with 49% of the farmers now women.
“It is very encouraging and motivating, and so humble with deep gratitude to have the support of NZ farmers who have greatly contributed to the growth of Sri Lankan farmers.
“The war was brutal. A dream can take you to a wonderful place.”
“The interaction brings trust, unity and peace. This is what we need in this country.”