Chanchala Gunewardena was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After spending eight years away for college and work, she returned in 2015. “I’ve lived in both the U.S. and Bangladesh and they were very different, yet great, temporary homes,” she says. “But there’s something calming that makes you steady on your feet when navigating your home turf.”
As an agri-food entrepreneur, Gunewardena runs Kimbula Kitchen, specializing in pure kithul (also called pani), a smoky sweet palm tree syrup. She also recently piloted Freedom Hub, a program teaching 17- to 35-year-olds creative entrepreneurship. The program worked for three and half months in Matara, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, to expose participants to creative thinking in art, film, and storytelling.
“Creatives visited to teach workshops, while our participants came to Colombo and visited creative-centered businesses, like the Barefoot shop and gallery, to see that art and culture can be an engine for a new vision for economic growth,” explains Gunewardena. “It’s not something many of our participants have got while in school or been allowed to dream as a practical way forward.”
Creativity plus a willingness to learn new tools and new areas are vital to her current work. “I had no background in agri or food, so that process has taken time,” she shares. “But by problem solving, being willing to never be above any task, and learning to manage anxiety—while also trying things not tried before—all of these in some order have helped me pull it off.”
Though she describes her business as small and unorthodox in its approach, she’s won long-standing support and genuine appreciation from chefs, mixologists, and customers who love Kimbula’s pure kithul syrup. “I am also so proud we championed a community of farmers that were totally overlooked, and showed a different way of brand-building that constantly tries to be purpose and people first,” says Gunewardena. “And now I love through my other youth-focused creative entrepreneurship project that we are able to try to pass on those skills of championing local potential amongst others.”
Running your own business comes with drawbacks, of course. “I’ve gone backwards perhaps more than I’ve gone forwards. I’ve trusted and got burned,” she says. But, she tries to treat those experiences as learning opportunities, reminding herself to keep going. “Try it. See if it works for you—launching your own thing and being your own boss,” Gunewardena says. Ideally you find collaborators from the start. And if it’s not working? “It’s okay to breathe, pause, reevaluate, or try a different tack,” she adds. “Mental health and integrity over ego if you can manage it.”
Since returning to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city and commercial capital, Gunewardena has enjoyed finding new-to-her aspects of the city by exploring different neighborhoods, and finding new food spots. “People [are] doing ever evolving and interesting things as the country has gone through various stages since I’ve been here,” she says. “I try to hop around to events from which I feel I can learn more, whether it’s on art, or politics and economy, or music.”
For visitors, she recommends going to one of Colombo’s many galleries to see local, contemporary art, such as the Sapumal Foundation, Barefoot Gallery, Saskia Fernando Gallery, and the JDA Perera Gallery. These spaces are often connected to garden enclaves and cafés, plus provide a nice air-conditioned break from the Lankan heat.
When you get hungry, you have many options. “If string hoppers, pol (coconut) sambol, and kiri hodi (a turmeric curry) are being served, I MUST eat,” says Gunewardena. “Brinjal moju (a sweet-spicy eggplant sambol) also is ace.” Also try a Jaffna crab curry, with the claws slightly cracked before cooking, so the curry seeps in. “That’s a dream and a treat,” she says.
Though recent headlines featuring Sri Lanka depict it as a place in crisis, there’s more to it. “The big discovery worth coming and seeing is the reality of a country that is coming through from that, as it has many times before, with its heart and sense of welcome intact, and its care to make sure our visitors are safe and looked after in their travel,” says Gunewardena.
“I have these quiet nerves about stepping into new places—especially the more I know that I’ll be kind of an outlier in some way—but at the same time it’s an immense privilege to have been able to see the beauty and diversity of our planet via travel,” she adds. “A place I’ve been lucky to visit on several occasions is Nepal, and I think second to Lanka it has my heart because in each visit something special has unfurled. Also when you’re flying in you see the Himalayas. It just sets the stage for magic.”
Learn more about Kimbula Kitchen from their Instagram, and follow Freedom Hub’s Facebook for announcements on an upcoming art and music festival in Matara. Stay tuned for more installments of Dreams Abroad’s ongoing Meet the Locals series, where you’ll get to know the work and lives of global professionals who continually spark our passion for travel. To discover more locals in our series, read about the designers behind the Paris-based, On Aura Tout Vu.
by Kara Elder