FROM HELPER TO ENTREPRENEUR, THE GREAT STORY OF NILU TEA
Nilushika ("Nilu") Silva Jayaweeera is a fighter. Being orphaned at the age of 14, she worked 16 years in Singapore as aForeign Domestic Worker, or Helper, before returning to Sri Lanka and create her own tea brand, "Nilu Tea". She is now the first woman entrepreneur to own and operate a tea business in Sri Lanka.
Nilushika ("Nilu") Silva Jayaweeera is a woman of today, a fighter. Her journey and history testify a vital force, courage and determination that enabled her to overcome her troubles and rise above life’s circumstances. She is now an independent woman who created her own tea company in Sri Lanka and an NGO that aims at educating and empowering women in her country.
Nilu was the eldest of five children and only 14 when her mother died. At 16, she became an orphan and responsible for her younger brothers and sisters after the death of her father and brother in an accident. The siblings were placed in an orphanage and Nilu had to work in a clothing factory to support them; "a very difficult job for very little money, but I did it to gain my independence.” At 19, she went to Singapore to work as a Foreign Domestic Worker and staid there for 16 years.
A rocky start in Singapore for this young, doubtful and fearful woman who had never left her village and doesn’t speak any English. "I will never forget the day I left my village. I was so scared... but I had to leave to protect my brothers and sisters”. With perseverance (and the help of songs at Church on Sundays!), she learned the language of her new country and worked during 16 years for 5 different employers - Chinese, Indian, Dutch, English and French.
Chance or fate ? … A blessed encounter at the least with this French family, and a turning point in her life. This supportive employer gives her the opportunity to study to prepare her future. "I remember from the first interview, Madam Olivia asked me: "What do you want in life? Do you want to be a Helper for your lifetime or do you have a plan ?”. I was so surprised and happy... no one asked me that question before!". And Nilu did not have a chance yet to think about it. "Back then, I didn't know who I was and what I wanted. Life just happened to me. All I knew was that I wanted was a better life for my brothers and sisters”.
She knows she wants a better life and help others, so she tries first to become a nurse. But the schedule of the courses doesn’t match with her work at the same time. Eventually, she decides to join AIDHA, this Singaporean organization that provides financial literacy, leadership and entrepreneurship programs to foreign domestic workers and low-income women in Singapore.
Joining AIDHA was the best decision I made in my life !
"Joining AIDHA was the best decision I made in my life! I was so happy because I felt I was like going back to school. It was like a dream come true. I had the opportunity to practice the computer, to speak in front of people and to learn how to start a business. And the management courses gave me confidence and the leadership I needed”.
Step by step, she has new ideas and projects, such as small businesses she would set up in her home country where she would meet again her siblings and her husband, whom she met a few years earlier at the church in Singapore... At the same time, she realizes that women's education and empowerment are key to a better life. One way or the other, she wants to "act for a society that values women in Sri Lanka. I want to teach them what I learned at AIDHA, how to grow a business to break the cycle of poverty. I want to educate and empower women in Sri Lanka”.
"I shared my ideas with Madam Olivia and, as I was used to bringing back a lot of tea and also Samahan from Sri Lanka, she told me "why don't you start a tea business ? And this is how it all started”.
Nilu then goes to meet producers in Sri Lanoa and creates her first website “Natural Products by Nilu”. "It was a real challenge for me to go and negotiate with producers in Sri Lanka. I was afraid they would judge me because I am a woman and because of my origin and history. But I took the courage to explain my project and they trusted me”.This is how she began to sell tea online through her network and by word of mouth. Her husband sends the orders from Sri Lanka all over the world: Singapore, France, Hong Kong, US,... Olivia, who is a web designer, customed the website. "It's still there and I don't want to close it down. I will keep that forever! ».
During 4 more years, she keeps working as a Helper in Singapore while growing her network and business. She remains active in AIDHA and attends the AsiaWorks Basic Training. With the experience she gained, she is now ready to leave Singapore. "Singapore is my home too, I feel good and safe here. So a part of me was not ready to leave. But I had to give my life and my marriage a chance. It was about time."
Nilu returned to her country and created her own tea brand, Nilu Tea, officially registered on May 5 2018, and a non-profit organization, Emerging Hope Lanka, which aims at educating and empowering women in Sri Lanka to start their own micro-business. 10% of all profts from Nilu Tea's sales benefit her NGO.
Nilu sources superior quality Ceylon teas, from two ethical and eco-responsible plantations, Kelani Valley and Talawakelle, certified by Rainforest Allianceand Ethical Tea Partnership. Under the "A Home for Every Plantation Worker" initiative, these producers are committed to the well being of their employees.
Nilu Tea is available online and distributed in Singapore at Redmartand Food for Thoughts(National Museum), with a selection of six teas: green tea, earl grey, camomile, mint, lemon-ginger and cinnamon. "I want to thank with all my heart Mary Gomez Camba who made my new site, and Leticia Murillo for my logo and the branding of Nilu Tea, as well as Jeanne Bellec (Aidha) and Gilles Herr (Vintage Wine) who recommended me to Redmart. Thanks to them, we were able to sell 500 boxes of tea in one month. My objective this year is to reach the break-even point with 2000 boxes and continue this journey”.
We wish Her every success !