A Passion to Succeed: An Illiterate Agro-Entrepreneur in Sri Lanka Overcomes Poverty

February 19, 2014


The Gemidiriya project has helped Sumanawathie and others increase their incomes and build a better future for their families and communities. 

Dilinika Peiris/ World Bank

  • Five years ago, D.M. Sumanawathie was illiterate and living on subsistence farming in poverty. Through hard work and ingenuity, she has become an entrepreneur and moved herself and her family out of poverty.
  • With support from the the community development and livelihoods improvement project, she received training and money to grow passionfruit and other cash crops.
  • The World Bank supported project, also known as Gemidiriya is helping thousands of families like her to realize their dreams.

“I don’t have the time to be lazy” said 45 year old D.M. Sumanawathie from Siyambalanduwa. She has never been to school but has managed to move herself and her family out of poverty within five years.  The wife of a farmer and mother of three children,  Sumanawathie, now identifies herself as an agricultural entrepreneur with a passion to progress in life. Her story out of poverty began when she came in contact with the Village Organization of Bowalagama, established under the World Bank supported Second Community Development and Livelihood Improvement Project (Gemidiriya). She stepped up to take the challenge of cultivating passion fruit, which was alien to farmers who were in subsistence paddy cultivation. This is her story

" I sell passion fruit plants and I recently made Rs. 62,400 from sales of plant. People who once did not believe this would work are asking me to help them.  "

D.M. Sumanawathie

Agricultural Entrepreneur


D.M. Sumanawathie's income has increased from Rs. 125 per day to over Rs. 62,000 from a recent sale of passion fruit plants. 

Dilinika Peiris/World Bank


Sumanawathie lives in Siyambalanduwa, once identified as the poorest division in Sri Lanka, where 51.8 percent of people lived below the poverty line as of 2002.

Sumanawathie says she and her family faced difficulties in making ends meet. “We did not have any knowledge of how to go about farming…my husband and I worked in neighboring farms for about 125 rupees a day or even less on some days and managed our daily expenses,” she recalls, describing how she struggled to educate her children the best way she could afford.

People for People

In 2005, a Village Organization (VO) was established in Bowalagama village in Siyambalanduwa, facilitated by the Government of Sri Lanka with support from the World Bank.  A VO is an autonomous body owned by the people with the purpose of improving livelihoods, skills, savings and building village level institutional capacities to develop public goods such as access roads, bridges and water connections. The VO in Bowalagama village also strives to develop the village and improve accessibility to other villages and form market linkages.


“I along with about 10 others raised my hand,” recalls Sumanawathie, expressing how she boldly took the risk of growing passion fruit, which was new to most villagers. She received continuous advice from project officials and agriculture extension workers. Moreover, she got her husband’s support; he helped her care for the plants and invested his labour in reaping the benefits of their tireless efforts.

“At one point, I was not sure if it would work,” Sumanawathie confesses. The total investment by the project in her passion fruit cultivation was Rs.4700, which included 100 passion fruit plants, wire and technological inputs. Today, Sumanawathie earns over Rs. 18,000 a month from her passion fruit cultivation alone.

Sumanawathie appreciates the new knowledge and handholding she received as a member of the VO that empowered her to take charge of her progress in life. “Although I cannot read and write, I now know how to farm using organic methods, how to save money and I have a better idea of how to make my savings grow,” she said, providing the numbers of loans she borrowed and repaid towards investments that supported her passion to progress in life. “With the advice of project officials, VO Coordinator and members, my financial literacy improved. But I still have to rely on my children to read and write,” she said with a smile.


With the initial project investment in passion fruit cultivation, Sumanawathie has diversified her produce. “Under the passion fruit creeper we have grown peanuts. We have also grown yams, vegetables and corn….today we are cultivating in 8 acres of land,” relates this enterprising lady.  She has not only diversified her cultivation, but also learnt to adapt her agricultural practice to climatic changes.

Although self-considered illiterate, Sumanawathie does her homework on the best price for her produce. At first, she and her husband used to take the produce to the market. But today, buyers come to their doorstep.

“I do not use chemical fertilizers…I have found natural methods of dealing with pests,” she explains, describing a concoction of kohomba/margosa leaves she uses to get rid of pests.


Not stepping into a school even for a day, both Sumanawathie and her husband T.M. Kiribanda (60) are proud of the progress they have made in life while educating their three children, building a new house and diversifying their agricultural enterprise. Today, Sumanawathie is sought after by other villagers for advice on growing passion fruit. “I sell passion fruit plants and I recently made Rs. 62,400 from sales of plants. People who once did not believe this would work are asking me to help them," she said, describing her happiness and passion to progress in life while helping others.