SPECIAL ENERGY REVIEW
Collective of entrepreneurs mend old wounds between Norway and Sri Lanka while creating new opportunities for both countries to develop
1June 2016, marked an important day for strengthening ties between xSri Lanka and Norway, by the official launch of the Norway Business Association of Sri Lanka (NBASL) in Colombo.
The initiative, which will guide new Norwegian businesses arriving to Sri Lanka and act as supporting body between existing Norwegian companies and the Norwegian Embassy, was ratified and launched by visiting Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Tore Hattrem and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Harsha De Silva, at a special event in Colombo.
Both recognised the huge potential for business communities of both countries to closely collaborate in key sectors such as ICT, tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, oil and gas, for mutual benefit.
“The future for your country, as I see it, lies in the modernisation of the economic sector and opening up for foreign investments. It is my conviction that Sri Lanka can and will play an important role in the global value chain. A nation could hardly be placed more strategically in terms of geography than you are,” stressed Mr Hattrem while addressing the local press at the event.
The launch of NBASL is not only important for the business sector, but can be seen in the context of reinvigorating the close ties and bilateral cooperation that both countries once enjoyed.
Their relationship became strained during the civil war when Norway played the role of a mediator between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in penning a peace treaty. Due to the conflict, Sri Lanka seemed an unsafe environment
for tourists and investors alike – an image that the country is now trying hard to change.
Spearheaded by Mr Finn WormPetersen, Group CEO of Exilesoft Corporation, a software development company headquartered in Colombo, NBASL began as an initiative by a small group of Norwegian businessmen and the Norwegian Embassy in Sri Lanka. With Ambassador Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther as a major driving force, discussions on forming the association began late last year, followed by formal talks in January 2016, and culminating with the signing in June.
“The process of setting NBASL up got started after we got a new ambassador last year. Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther is perhaps the first ambassador we’ve seen with a very strong business agenda. He’s very practical and results oriented, so we immediately formed a mutual understanding. The same goes for Børge Brende, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs in Norway, who has a very strong vision on creating jobs and opportunities, and growing Norwegian business interests outside of the country. There’s been a paradigm shift in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as a whole the way I see it,” Mr Worm-Petersen said.
He points out that the initiative serves the interest of both the business community and the embassy as the latter lacks a commercial arm, so it benefits them directly by acting as a gateway to the commercial sector and the key issues that the business community is facing.
“I think as Norwegians, we’re a bit introverted as people. What we try to achieve with NBASL is to create a better network and the reception between people on the ground and those that have just arrived,” Mr Worm-Petersen expands. “Previously we’ve seen people arrive to Sri Lanka on delegations without actually meeting the local business community. We try to create an environment where they come in, have a lot of contact points and can quite quickly find out what works and what doesn’t, what the embassy can do for them and what are their own responsibilities.”
One of his initial motivations was an idea to connect industries in their respective countries, and as an ICT professional his plan was to link the Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM) and its counterpart, ICT Norway. Ambassador Gaustadsæther promoted the idea of sending an application through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a letter to ICT Norway. They returned with a very favourable response, which helped push things forward and also became validation for the initiative’s ability to get things done.
As a result, a few programmes have already been submitted and put into place through the MFA and ICT Norway, such as the Lær Kidsa Koding (Teach Kids to Code), a coding club for kids aged 5-18 all around the island. The first batch saw 40 young coders making their first functional Android app.
Mr Worm-Petersen sees a lot of potential for vocational training and collaborative projects in Sri Lanka moving forward.
“We’re making a big push in the maritime industry since Norway has hundreds of years of experience to leverage on, and we would like our government to become more heavily involved, perhaps by having research conducted in Sri Lanka. Rather than focusing on pure trade, we would like to deliver permanent mutual value.”
Reflecting back on his 17 years in Sri Lanka, Mr Worm-Petersen says he was initially torn between what they were doing, as it had both a positive and a negative effect. He and other Norwegian tech entrepreneurs were bringing in competence and salaries to build the knowledge economy in the nation, but at the same time they were taking the best brains in Sri Lanka and exporting the results to benefit foreign parties.
A case in point is Facebook and the London Stock Exchange, both of which are running on Sri Lankan technology, but other than bringing in salaries it has a very limited effect on the economy. However, Mr Worm-Petersen is now seeing a trend where the 70,000 strong IT workforce is becoming more inward looking, giving rise to 1,000 start-ups and spinning off to a myriad of local businesses, a move he believes will benefit the Sri Lankan society as a whole.
“I came here with the idea of sourcing talent at low cost and exporting the results outside, but now Asia is fast becoming my biggest market. I think that opportunity has not been observed by Norwegian businesses – we still think we need to be successful on main street Oslo before we can go anywhere. My view is now totally different. If you’ve proven your product, get the hell out because Norway is too small and Asia is opening up in so many sectors. This region is the new proving ground and the future for Norwegian businesses.”