A firm believer of dreams and ideas as invaluable assets, Nilanga Karunarathne – Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Agro Ventures Plantations Private Limited – is a testament to this statement. This renowned entrepreneur who created ripples in the agricultural sector attributed his business acumen to the tender age of ten.

He recalls looking at magazines for luxury products and vehicles and wondering about the ingenuity behind such creations. Karunarathne would ask himself whose brainchild is this, how did they begin, what their lifestyle is and so on. While other kids his age would look at these photographs and gush over the products, his inquisitive mind spurred business questions none of his peers would have thought of.

Besides, during his educational pursuits at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, he would tutor at what would one day become one of the most prominent coaching centers in the country. His classes consisted of nearly 4000 students at a time. Although he never aspired for a career in teaching but merely held a sincere passion to groom young minds, this phase in Karunarathne’s life facilitated him to learn the art of communication and building empathy towards large numbers of people, ultimately becoming a precursor to his career in training.

However, post-graduation, he embarked upon his corporate career and joined a private banking institution, which launched Asian Alliance Insurance a year later. As one of the pioneering members of Asian Alliance, Karunarathne (as the Head of Training and Knowledge Management, reporting directly to the CEO) was indispensable in the company’s growth. His significant contributions in implementing policies and processes continue to reverberate across the company even today.

Apart from his 15-year tenure with Asian Alliance, he has accumulated experience in several other insurance companies in leading positions, including titles such as Assistant General Manager and General Manager. Despite these leadership roles, his thirst for entrepreneurship didn’t let him rest. As a result, he founded Gapco International Private Ltd as well as Ezi Channeling Private Ltd, which is well-known across the island.

Meanwhile, Agro Ventures Plantations took root in 2016, its initial stages dedicated solely towards extensive planning and research. Five years down the line, the company had transformed into a strong system, which led to the successful launch of its sales division in 2022.

Speaking about the philosophy at Agro Ventures Plantations and how this correlates to his ethos and characteristics as a leader, Karunarathne stated that “I always look beyond the present and where we can go next. And that is why I continue to plan meticulously” and further elaborated that the company is growth-focused in every aspect.

He continued, “We’re an Agro-Investment company and on a surface level the growth of our plantations is obviously highly central to our operation but we also wish to grow Sri Lanka’s vanilla export sector into being the number one vanilla supplier in the world. We look for growth in our sales operations so that we can provide great returns to our customers and grow their capital.”

Furthermore, Karunarathne elaborated Agro Ventures Plantations’ commitment to being environmentally friendly. He said, “Currently our products have been received well by our customers as we’ve cultivated an honest brand that delivers on its promises but soon I believe Agro Ventures Plantations will be a global force in the Agro-Investment sector.”

“We provide an eco-friendly means of investment, as opposed to certain cryptocurrencies that have a manufactured volatile value whilst being one of the most environmentally damaging investments today. Here at Agro Ventures, we believe in the long-term, with guaranteed returns to all our customers with no uncertainty,” he explained.

Among those who invest in vanilla cultivations, its market demand is common knowledge. As a crucial ingredient in the beauty and food industries, organic vanilla will always retain its valued position because the original flavors of vanilla are tough to replace. According to Karunarathne, synthetic vanilla is a known carcinogen that puts many lives at risk.

Meanwhile, Agro Ventures Plantations relies on a simple business model. The process involves inviting customers to invest in a plot of land, and nurturing vanilla plantations, which will be managed – financially, and otherwise – by the company to ensure the vanilla will efficiently grow into beans. Backed by rigorous research and experiments, which developed into innovative methods of vanilla cultivation, the company is able to maximize the bean harvests.

Karunarathne added, “Agro Ventures Plantations will cultivate and then export this vanilla to the global market so that our customers will receive a hefty return on their investment from us. We take care of all the work while our customers can invest and enjoy the benefits after the return period.”

Remarking on how this agreement works, he said, “We have a plan that allows our customers to receive a monthly passive income after an initial investment and like all our plans, we will transfer a plot of land as a security for their investment, along with a legal agreement. In addition, we have plans where our customer could invest a certain sum and receive the highest returns with excellent security via the legal agreement and plot of land – at the end of five years.”

On the other hand, Agro Plantation Ventures’ customers also comprise export partners who purchase high-quality raw and processed vanilla beans and other vanilla products. Karunarathne claimed that these are highly valued since their vanilla is 100% organic. The company also caters its processed beans to a range of 5-star hotels in Sri Lanka and the Middle East.

Speaking of some of the memorable milestones of the company, Karunarathne revealed that the distribution of the first thousand land deeds as security for customers within merely six months since the sales operations began was a proud moment for him.

He admitted how herculean the task of cultivating even one acre of vanilla was but the company managed to complete the initial cultivations of the first 20 acres out of its 135 acres, highlighting the commitment the team showed towards this goal and the people’s trust in the brand. In addition to this, the company plays a vital role in enhancing the livelihoods of several stakeholders, including farmers, employees and customers who invest in vanilla cultivation.

However, operating amidst an economic crisis is no easy feat. Summarizing a few of the setbacks faced by the company and the mammoth challenges it overcame, Karunarathne expressed what approaches were taken to eradicate these economic ramifications for the company. He said, “We tried to have a positive outlook throughout because that is the best way to get through tough times. We’re already working in a challenging sector, balancing sales and investment with farming and agriculture.”

He demonstrated that “during this time we tried to look for opportunities and after extensive discussions, we concluded how vital our service is during this economic crisis. Inflation has hit everyone hard and anyone saving money is losing it as is the nature of inflation. Dollar savings started to be converted to LKR. However, Agro Ventures Plantations provided one of the highest return on investments in Sri Lanka – even more than local fixed deposit rates. As a trustworthy investment, we support our customers to increase their savings rather than watch it dwindle away, as we are backed by the Earth.”

Emphasizing the island’s soil as one of the finest in the world despite the difficulties Sri Lanka has endured as a nation, he added, “Our vanilla is grown 100% organically without any artificial fertilizers, ensuring that we were not affected by the fertilizer shortage in any direct capacity. Moreover, we have long-term deals with our international buyers who have agreed to pay us a fixed rate in USD. Therefore, our income from exports is secure despite the ongoing crisis. All credit must go to the planning that we had done prior. This allowed us to evade such problems as we had built a robust business model.”

Next, he unveiled the future plans of Agro Ventures Plantations. Intending to meet the ever-growing demand for vanilla in the global market, the company envisions Sri Lanka as a leading exporter of organic vanilla as a value-added product. Setting the bar high, the company has a target to raise the valuation of vanilla’s export sector to USD 100 million as well as create a brand for Sri Lankan organic vanilla similar to the likes of Ceylon Tea.

“This will massively boost Sri Lanka’s agro export sector as our crops will be organically grown, setting a great example to follow sustainable practices. We will also create many job opportunities over the course of this venture and help Sri Lanka’s economy earn much-needed foreign revenue,” he assessed.

Concluding with an inspirational message for upcoming entrepreneurs and leaders, Karunarathne shared the importance of having a dream. “Even if you think you’re starting from nothing, you’ll be starting with a dream and dreams turn the world around. Over the next three decades, the most valuable asset will be dreams and ideas. In a future where everything will be automated, your ideas and innovation are what will stand out among a sea of monotony. So, if you have a dream, you’re already halfway there.”