2 - CropShanil Samarakoon, poet, author, speaker and social entrepreneur, grew up across the rich and diverse cultural landscapes of Botswana, Malawi, and then his native Sri Lanka, before settling in Sydney Australia in 2007 for his postgraduate education in Commerce.

However, it was in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka that he discovered a calling to live a life dedicated to contribution, and after several years of involvement in a range of aid and development projects, he founded Empower in 2009. Empower facilitates and enables the aspirations of rural communities to be self-reliant and currently works in partnership with 40 communities in Malawi and Sri Lanka.

In 2010, Shanil was awarded “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” and was listed #3 in Startup Daily’s list of Top 50 Changemakers in Australia. He continues to serve as the Executive Director of Empower Projects. He is also a poet and writer and has published two compilations.

  1. 1. What is your role as changemaker? 

On paper I am the Founder and Executive Director of Empower Projects Ltd. In the day to day, I am the  connector and motivator for a tribe of skilled, like-minded people with a shared passion for social justice. In many cases I am the public face of the organisation and am honoured to be able to share the amazing work of our partner communities and my team with the rest of the world!

IMG_19542.  What change are you aiming to make in the world?

I am passionate about enabling the aspirations of those who are marginalised in the paradigm we live in today. Over my 10 years working across projects in Sri Lanka and Malawi, I have been dismayed by the portrayal of rural people as being backward, lazy and incapable.  Perhaps more insidiously, that they lack the capacity to forge their own futures outside of external prescriptions by “experts”. This exploitation is what  I rail against because I feel that the so called ‘bottom billion’ are in fact the most resilient, hard working and deserving people on earth. Yet they are inhibited and constrained by a lack of opportunity and resources.

At the most fundamental level, the change that thrills and enlivens me Entrepreneur Training  June 2013to the core is that shift from “I can’t and I won’t ” to ” I CAN and I WILL”

3. What prompted you to start Empower Projects?

Truth be told, I never set out to create an organisation!  My fellow founders, James and Shyamika, had various experiences with philanthropy and approaches to aid and development that we talked about candidly over several months. These criticisms, opinions  and ideas eventually coalesced into an approach towards community development projects that we were passionate about.

We decided to focus on Malawi due to personal ties and the fact that it is a nation that consistently ranks as being one of the poorest countries in the world despite an abundance of NGOs. We were successful in striking up partnerships with a university in Mzuzu to pilot our approach in 2010. By 2012 we had 38 communities in the entire sub-region request that we work with them! From there on we have focused on consolidating our approach and developing the capacity of our local team.

4. Tell us about 3 specific examples of success so far. 

chilren building eco-sanitationa) One of my favourite examples of a success is from one of our Malawi projects — Kapita Primary School’s permaculture committee. In 2011, the school identified the desire to start a school food garden in order to work towards their own school food program. The school had previously had donor funded programs that would have a positive impact in driving attendance but come grinding to a halt once funds ran out. Empower organised extensive training in permaculture, specifically focused on organic agriculture. Consequently a Permaculture Committee was formed, consisting of students, staff and parents that would see to the creation of a garden that embraced sustainability principles. Nearly 3 years on, the garden is thriving and students are enjoying harvests of bananas, pineapples, corn and potatoes. The program is going from strength to strength with the incorporation of  eco-sanitation and further expansion of the garden.

b) Another specific story is that of Litness Mwale, a powerful woman from Zatuba Village in Malawi. Last December she shared very candidly how transformative our training in leadership and business development had been for her. Particularly as she had been struggling to cope because her ailing husband meant that she was the sole breadwinner for 7 children (including her sister’s children). Litness shared with me how low she felt prior to the project’s entry and how she was mocked by community members as being incapable. Litness is now  a highly successful organic coffee grower and a member of the regional development committee.

_DSC0840c) We were honoured to be recognised by the Rockefeller Foundation as being one of the “100 Innovators” for the next century. We were selected due to a our unique approach to financing solar lighting through a community operated bank.

5.  What are some challenges you face?

There are many to be honest … but none that surpass the pure joy of being able to work with some amazing people across the world.

For me, one of the main challenges is distance. Working on projects centered on efforts in Malawi and Sri Lanka mean that much of what we do is through online communication. While highly effective and cost-effective, it can come at the cost of the emotional connection that our team and supporters have with our work. Sometimes I wish I was there in person, taking the picture as opposed to receiving it via email or Dropbox from thousands of miles away!

dacThis being said, one of our great successes (and a valuable learning for me as a leader) has been in decentralising our approach and walking the talk in terms of empowering our local team to do their thing. Sometimes you need to get out of the way! I think I’ve got better at delegating and not being the point-man for everything (as I was in the beginning). Still it’s not an easy thing to achieve since I primarily work with volunteers who have a range of competing commitments.

Fundraising is another challenge that I’m sure many changemakers share. While we’ve managed to stay ahead thanks to an awesome base of supporters, it can be exhausting to keep putting yourself out there to raise money. Particularly because it’s often the least interesting part of what a changemaker does! Having said this, we have learnt more about where we need to focus our energy to be more effective at fundraising.

I consider myself an introvert at the core and even though I now have years of experience, I still get anxious when presenting to large audiences. That anxiety often melts away in the moment but it definitely saps my energy during the prep stage.  This has got somewhat easier with time as I’ve had some great mentors and some fantastic feedback.

As Changemaker of the Month you get three things:

  • An opportunity to plug your work
  • Coaching offered
  • Donate28 money to spend on self-care/celebration/support

6. So, tell us what you’d  like to share with us? 

I’d love for your readers  in Sydney to join us for our event  on the 30th of July. It’s a Trivia Night and the proceeds go towards supporting our work in Malawi! You can buy tickets and find out more HERE.

trivatoempower7. What training/support would you like? 

Time management. I have my finger in many pies! I am currently balancing my responsibilities with Empower as well as an academic at UNSW, while training for a marathon and writing a fiction novel. I’d deeply appreciate some help refining my approach to time management so I can keep powering on :)

980969_10153414932555497_602886605_o8.  And, drum roll time, what do you plan to spend your Donate28 money on?

I’d like to use this generous donation to book a 2 day retreat for our Malawi team in December this year! We have not been able to have a  proper retreat for this incredible team and I’d like to take this opportunity to connect, unwind and celebrate our achievements together.


Feeling inspired? Take action.

Now that you’ve read Shanil’s interview, here are three things you can do. (Do one! Do all three!)

1. Come to the Activate28 end-of-month webinar, Goodbye July, Hello August. It only costs $28 and all the money goes to Empower Malawi’s team retreat in December.

2. Connect with Shanil on social media:

Twitter: @team_empower

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/empowerprojects

3. Leave a comment below. What did you find most inspiring about Shanil’s interview?