Col­lec­tive of en­trepreneurs mend old wounds be­tween Nor­way and Sri Lanka while cre­at­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for both coun­tries to de­velop

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - HENRI VIIRALT

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.”


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