How it All Started
When a family business is passed down to the next generation, expectations usually run high for the business to be preserved and expanded.
Three siblings from Colombo, Sri Lanka never intended to take over their father’s cinnamon and tea farm. But when they did, they ended up taking on local agriculture and bringing it to the next level.
Gayani, and her brothers, Ananda and Nisal, credit the creation of their company, Ant Commodity Exchange, to their first independent ventures.
Gayani Sagjeewani taught urban planning courses at a local university while founding a company that produced and exported rubber to Pakistan.
Ananda Piyankara traded natural rubber, cinnamon and tea, and won entrepreneurial awards at the New York Stock Exchange, Harvard Business School, and Kauffman Foundation for his impact.
And Nisal Ananda, the oldest of their six siblings, moved to the United States and traded commodities ranging from medicinal herbs to agricultural manufacturing tools.
Like true entrepreneurs, Gayani, Ananda, and Nisal saw value in their surroundings and created opportunities with it.
And these experiences brought them back to their family farm. They saw how much intermediaries profited just by acting as the middlemen, and how that mid step in the trading process contributed to inefficiency and a lack of transparency.
“We calculated the average profit distribution of the Sri Lankan tea industry last year and the numbers we got were shocking. Of all the profits made, 2% to 9% went to tea farmers, 18% went to tea factories and 73% went to traders and brokers.”
Gayani, Ananda and Nisal founded Ant Commodity Exchange to empower the farmers, including their father, to keep more of the profits they produced.
The first mission of Ant Commodity Exchange was to create a farmer’s collective. Then, they bought processing machines andconnected famers within the collective to one community processing center. Finally, they created the online platform for buyers to directly purchase from its producers.
“The majority of commodity producers in developing countries are small scale farmers who own less than five acres. The important thing is that the farmers themselves operate the farmer groups and processing centers. When the commodities reach the processing centers, that’s when the Ant Commodity platform kicks in to sell to overseas buyers.”
Ant Commodity started with the produce they grew up knowing best, Ceylon cinnamon, which is indigenous to Sri Lanka.
“Because we streamlineand remove the intermediaries from the entire process, the prices Ant Commodity offers to the international market are one of the lowest in the industry.”
A lot of travel is required running an agricultural business based in Sri Lanka when you’re living in Korea.
Gayani moved to Seoul five years ago to continue her studies in urban planning. Along the way, she married a Korean local, and now calls Korea home.
Her brother, Ananda, came to Seoul two years ago to support the expansion of Ant Commodity to the Korean market.
Importing agricultural products under the strict Korean regulations required a number of certificates from Sri Lanka and Korea.
They had to experiment with Korean tastes, too.
“We found producers in Malawi, and added moringa to our agricultural product line. Koreans seem to prefer moringa capsules instead of powder. We’re working on adapting to this, but the capsule version has to pass through government regulations first.”
Ant Commodity Exchange is also selling its farmers’ products on Korean platforms such as Coupang.
“Shifting to Korean preferences, we also had to change the packaging on most of our items. I guess packaging and aesthetics is important here. Once we did this, our sales increased dramatically.”
As well as expanding their reach to Korea, Ant Commodity is also expanding its produce.
Farmers from Sri Lanka and Malawi are currently selling ground Ceylon cinnamon, Ceylon tea, cassava, and moringa – all which have been hailed as superfoods for its detoxifying elements.
Responding to China’s recent import ban on U.S. wheat, Ant Commodity Exchange is connecting with its network of wheat farmers in Indiana.
They are currently working on connecting Korean buyers to soybean, corn, and wheat farmers in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Despite their global expansion of farmed produce, Ant Commodity hopes that one day its platform can support all commodities produced in the villages of Sri Lanka.
“We saw how much having the farmers be a part of the process – from cultivation, manufacturing, to shipping – changed them. They started dressing and talking differently, calling their produce ‘their product’. Many farmers there don’t know what happens after their product leaves the farm, and they were surprised at how far it travelled.”
Ant Commodity Exchange has established a commodity fund to raise $200,000 in working capital this year.
“The benefit for contributors is that the fund money will only be utilized to finance against confirmed orders. It’s also a great opportunity to invest in commodities such as Ceylon cinnamon, which is not provided to institutional investors now.”
“And in the long run we would like to see investments coming to our fund from our commodity buyers. This way the buyers will be part of the entire supply chain and will get a good financial return doing that.”
One of their investors is a commodity buyer of Ceylon cinnamon. He travelled to the Sri Lankan farms to better understand his investment.
Too often, the process of trade and export is compartmentalized, where the original producers are cut off and undercut at the beginning of the process.
Ant Commodity Exchange aims to humanize this process and empower its agricultural community.