Policy consistency, a must to reach agricultural goals - ex Chamber chief | Sunday Observer

Policy consistency, a must to reach agricultural goals - ex Chamber chief

16 December, 2018
Dr. Chandra Embuldeniya                 Pic by Chaminda Niroshana
Dr. Chandra Embuldeniya Pic by Chaminda Niroshana

Agriculture is the starting point of an economy and food security is important. “We need to go up the economic ladder and focus more on value-added agriculture and find markets for our products,” founder Vice-Chancellor of Uva-Wellassa University and former National Chamber of Commerce President Dr. Chandra Embuldeniya said.

He said, “We need policy consistency to reach goals in the agriculture sector.”

Agriculture could be developed using appropriate technology in planting and harvesting. “We need to engage in protected agriculture and green house cultivation. Investing in green house cultivation makes your profits go up and has to be supported by fertiliser, water and insecticides, he said in an interview with Observer Business.

Q. What are the projects you are involved in at present?

A. I am involved in four of my favourite projects at present. I am chairing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Committee of the National Science Foundation.

I also chair the Technology Grants Committee which is all about innovation and commercialisation. I am involved with the National Human Resource Development Council which comes under the purview of the Skills Development Ministry and also with private higher education institutions directing policies.

I have completed an assignment at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. This document could be used as a reference document for research by the Council for Agri Research. I also help the Chitra Lane Institution.

In Sri Lanka there is a huge need for skilled people such as in the construction and tourism industries. Many workers from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan work in these sectors depriving our labour force the opportunity to be gainfully employed. They are unregulated.

I am chairing a committee on forming regulations with the support of the Ministries of Labour and Foreign Affairs, Chambers and Departments of Immigration and Emigration and the AG’s Department. We have identified how to lay down regulations, work permits and visas. The parties concerned should have access to information on these employees and security clearance.

There should be a single window access and this type of information should be available to government agencies. I have undertaken most of the projects on behalf of the government free of charge.

I also did some work for the Asian Development Bank as a Senior Education Consultant. I helped them to set up two technology universities and wrote two reports on tourist arrivals and the three wheeler sector. The report looked in to skills, human capital and human resource development.

The profession of driving trishaws is not an economic solution for our country. We are creating jobs for foreigners. Many people are skilled in different areas. We need to focus on the needs of the future and not be complaisant in applying the principals laid down by the Act of Parliament.

Q. What is your opinion about private education in Sri Lanka? How should it be streamlined?

A. I have laid down how it should be in the policy regulations It is the most promising and only way to have guaranteed access as 80% of the students are unable to get in to a government university as the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is 17%.

We need to find futuristic solutions for their development, as for careers the private sector is the most promising sector when it comes to education. However, they are doing it with very limited resources and uncertain policies regarding higher education.

It is absolutely important we give confidence to investors that the policy environment of the country is stable. In other words, we should have a National Education Policy.

How do we support the students to get private education? National universities are incurring a huge cost to the country. We have trapped our students to a very limited choice of streams because they are conducted by the public education system.

If the national policy is analysed, for example, blockchain, no university is conducting a program on this subject whereas universities in Australia, the USA, Singapore, Malaysia and India have already incorporated programs on this subject.

The impact from the private education system is very minimum. The private higher education institutes are either funded by PPP or provided with loans at the rate applicable in the education industry.

The private higher education institutes should maintain high quality and should not be a burden, but an eye opener.

The public higher education institutes are not run for profits. There will be a private higher education policy document that will be published soon. We have to give the students the opportunity to choose credit currency which is integrated knowledge with multi disciplinary programs. All these things need drivers.

The policy needs to be driven, especially at the Ministry level. We need policy drivers. We need to structure programs in such a way that the student can learn whatever program in institutions that will give that will give them credits to qualify.

Q. What happened to the university project that you were planning to do with a British University?

A. That was a very important matter for me where it took five years to develop plans for a full-fledged university in a 120-acre land in Meerigama with an investment of US $ 120 million with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). I was working with the top most board. We developed design, funding and concept for the university.

They completely endorsed my efforts. We receive approvals from Parliament and the UGC. We had lined up private sector investors to participate. The World Bank had started the review process.

It took about five years for us for the initial process. The BOI gave their fullest support and we also obtained the environmental clearance.

The governing board of the British university changed which happens every ten years. The new board came in and they took a different perspective with regard to Sri Lanka.

The main reason was that they had lost money in their Thailand operations in setting up a university. When they took stock they realised that their overseas operations have not given them enough returns.

They reviewed this process for about another year and were not ready to go ahead. It was a disappointment. If it came to fruition, we would have had a university of great standing in Sri Lanka.

Q. University students find it difficult to secure employment . What are the solutions to minimise this situation?

A. The problem in the university system is chronic. From the total who pass out 70% are from the Arts and Commerce streams and 30% are from other disciplines where there are some chances of employment.

In our system we do not produce students to match the job requirement. We need to change the education system. The Arts and Commerce students must be integrated with Science, Technology, Medicine and Engineering programs to make it multi disciplinary and inter-disciplinary programs.

It should be the choice of the student. This is the transformation we need for the country. In restructuring these programs there can be 100s of new degree programs.

Q. Will the development of public and private education help economic growth?

A. The public, private partnership (PPP) is a modern governance system. This modern governance system will bring in human capital, ICT, and organisational capital to have strong inputs.

This private sector contributing skills they will also contribute with financial capital. The government policy, right regulatory system, easy access to funds are the basic philosophy of PPP. The value addition for the whole system is the capacity of the human capital. The PPP should be work for results.

Q. We are a country which is heavily dependent on a few sectors such as tea, apparel and foreign remittances. Do we have to depend only on these sectors and what are the new sectors we should be looking at?

A. The apparel sector is changing very fast with technology and automation taking over. Apparel is a solution for technology wise companies and a lot of robotics capturing value chain, specialisation, differentiation, capturing niche markets and customising to individuals on mass scale. The process is changing with technology.

With regard to foreign remittances, we are exporting our domestics and trying to import workers for sectors such as construction and tourism. We need to identify how we can get our local men and women into these sectors and pay higher remuneration and upscale skills.

We need to transfer these people to the sectors where we need manpower such as construction and tourism. We need a psychological change. This is the part of the engagement process and we should not go for convenient solutions but ensure skill development programs.

The sectors we can develop for the future is heavily dependent on the technology. Soft technology such as IOT, AL and virtual reality.

We are stuck with the old fashion of teacher to student method. In filling this gap we need to go in to hard technologies that integrate soft technologies. We need to learn about the available new jobs.

This system needs to be futuristic and gather the information on how to do it for the future.How the world will change nobody will know.

We really need to do hard work on changing trends, patterns and keep up to date. We should persist on understanding the future and change rapidly not resorting to traditional way of conducting.

Q. Can you tell us about one of the biggest projects in Sri Lanka, the Uva Wellassa University. What is its status today?

A. The challenge presented to me was to set up a university with a difference. The rationale behind the new university was to remedy the problems of students not being gainfully employed once they pass out and education programs being syllabus based and not connected with national development. In general, the management was having many informal conflicts with students and there was no inclusive development. There was much ragging and abuse causing students to be average.

What I did was to bring a concept that will give students a job when they leave the university and developed economic oriented programs, bring value addition to the economy, prevent all ragging, establish multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary programs and ensure that all the students will have skills to do jobs and the university will be driven by a strategic plan.

My slogan for the university was ‘Centre of Excellence for value addition to the national resource base’ which comprised agriculture, plantation, mineral and human capita.

My primary objective was to transform the economy from primary level economy to value added products. I wanted to go on value addition based on broad general education, ethics, geography, moral studies and history and brought in essential skills such as communication, quantitative reasoning skills, IT skills, English in all programs. There were programs to teach Tamil to Sinhala students and Sinhala for Tamil students as well.

The university was differentiated by having all programs based on entrepreneurship. We were the first university to talk about entrepreneurship in the country. Multi-discipline came with Uva Wellassa University. We created a different mindset for the students. In approaching real strategy I describe the value proposition new process and foundation development on organisational capital.

The university was a value addition to the economy. The student centered learning, research on value addition and social responsibility for every lecturer were the core value of the university. We recruited other staff from the local community to make them feel for the university. I outsourced all the services to ensure core activities are intact.

Q. What are your thoughts on developing the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka? Do you think that we can still be an agriculture-based economy?

A. Using appropriate technology in planting and harvesting agriculture could be developed. We need to engage in protected agriculture and green house. By investing in green house cultivation makes your profits on products which will be supported by fertiliser, water and insecticides. This will increase the quality of products.

Our system at present is going for open agriculture where too much and too little rain has a heavy impact. There is this risk factor. The farmers are poor in this country. Even outdoor we need to use harvesting machines from the harvesting time.

We need to blame the value chain not the farmers. This is all in the Government’s hand. If you have a national policy and a sound agricultural policy there could be a solution for the cycle of agriculture patterns. We need to make rational decisions taking in to account the strategic impact of the value chain.

Today’s farmers will not be there tomorrow if the wrong decisions are taken. We could reach high productivity in agriculture by using technology including AI. Agriculture is the starting point of an economy. We should look at food security. We need to go up the economic ladder and bring in more value added agriculture. It is the technology. We should find markets to cater to our resources.

We have to look at the way of moving up on the value chain. By providing technology related services people can be very rich. As an industry we can look at the value point in plenty of ways. We need to identify the possibility of globalisation. However, we need policy consistency and targeting to reach the goals in the agriculture sector.

Q. What are your thoughts on developing science and technology in Sri Lanka? Where do innovation and commercialisation stand in our education system?

A. I was the University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman at one time. The UGC works within the government regulations. Our business is to fund innovation.

Commercialisation is the capacity to take risk and take your product to the target customers. Innovators know only to innovate. He himself does not have the technology to teaming up and developing the prototype. However, you have a faint idea which kind of market segment you are targeting at.

You need to produce from prototype to a marketable product. For this you need a production line and production process, test making and correction with re-adjustments.

It also involves the time factor and huge effort on the part of finding financiers. The last innovator not be an entrepreneur only an idea man. All these are the factors hindering the success. What should happen? We find innovators. What we need to do from the Government’s point of view is to provide facilitation on the points mentioned. This is called the innovation eco system. In Sri Lanka innovation eco system is very poor. If you can strengthen this you can find more success. This is one of the most important issues to create wealth. Sri Lanka needs to take a cue from China where the country is the world leader in patents, brands and designs.