I am an Indian, living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And I would have done a few things differently had I known a few things about Colombo before I came here. So here’s a heads-up for future expats heading to the wonder island.
If you are a savvy business person and looking for new opportunities, Sri lanka is a great place to be at. If you are a salaried person looking for career growth… assess your options well before coming here.
For a South Asian salaried person:
Come here for the wider footpaths, less crowded city, the blue sky, the greenery and the amazing beauty of the island. Career or economically, it is probably worse than your other options.
For someone from developed economies:
Come here for an interesting addendum in your CV and a relaxed work culture. Again, career wise or economically, it is probably on-par with other opportunities you might have.
For somebody from China:
Welcome to grow with your nation’s colony.
Either ways, bargain a better deal with your company for a better pay pack and hopefully a house and a car as part of the deal. If you don’t get a house and a car, look for substantially high allowances. If neither, do not come.
The lowdown –
Among South Asian cities, it is easily amongst the cleanest, neatest cities. The single most important reason for me to choose a city is its ability to allow me to walk pleasantly from work to home. So discounting the terrible traffic fumes, I like Colombo walks quite a bit. I do get to enjoy a good three km walk everyday. Besides, it is not as crazy crowded as other Asian cities, yet.
Having said that, the housing bubble here now is dangerously inflated. Housing is very expensive. I was lucky enough to get a company house in the heart of the city at subsidized rate. If it were not for that, it would not have made any sense for me to shift here. If you stay beyond 5-6 km from your work place, the commute could be harrowing (like in most cities, but slower.) So you are between a rock (expensive cars for commute) and a hard place (expensive housing close to work) when it comes to quality of life in the city.
So here’s the first tip – move here only if your company provides you with a house and a car, or if you are desperate.
The stereotype is true to a certain degree. Sri Lankans, by and large, are mild in temperament and they have the patience to indulge others. Neither do they have the brashness and loudness of Delhi-Gurgaon-Noida hell hole nor the incessant busyness of Mumbai folks. Any town in India on its way to become a ‘city’ becomes a little sharper, a bit brasher at its edges. That too happens here, but to a lesser degree I feel.
Having said that – my perspective is limited. I live in a fairly upmarket area so that shields me. For instance, I wouldn’t be as carefree in Pettah as I am in Kollupitiya. If you are woman, you could experience catcalling, stares, occasional hooting too, especially in the evening.
So it isn’t a paradise either.
Getting repairs done is a pain
The flip-side of the ‘niceness’ is the inefficiency and lack of dependability. Getting anything done in Sri Lanka is quite a challenge. The first challenge is finding people – there simply aren’t many electricians, plumbers, etc. Those who were in the trade have left for Gulf countries for better pay. Those who didn’t go, are driving cabs and tuk tuk (auto rikshaw) since it can pay even better than these trades and with the added bonus of freedom. So Sri Lanka is facing a huge problem of skill-shortage. This matters because if something breaks in your home you better fix it yourself or wait for weeks and months to get it fixed.
There are a few professional services that work alright, but i won’t trust all of them. The norm is that of repeated calling, reminding and cajoling people into getting things done.
I see it in positive light though – A labourer here is much more respected than in India. Indian workers are treated poorly and driven to work ruthlessly. Indian households and companies can be brutal assholes. Sri Lankan labour though has some amount of agency and they get paid much better than in India. So YAY for that. I accept the inefficiency as a welcome cost for living in a (slightly) better world where fellow comrades are treated fairly. (again, unfortunately not to the extent of Nordic or German fairness, but a welcome experience coming from Indian cities.)
Well, if you have revenue responsibility – Sri Lanka would be a smaller market but one with decent growth potential. That has its own set of dynamics though. The long term prospects for Sri Lankan economy are not too bright, unless you are Chinese (from my perspective – bad deal with china, currency in doldrums, low preparedness on developing strategic markets or skill development and terrible deficit.) There is a vision to make it the next Singapore, making it a financial hub, aviation hub etc… But I don’t see any proof of that helping the middle class. The money is staying with the Chinese and a few rich local parties. Strained middle class -> strained consumption -> strained agency growth.
Besides, most FMCG categories have nearly universal penetration, that means growth is not in expanding markets like in India, but in stealing competitive shares. With impending opening of the economy, there will be competitive bloodbath for local brands. High inflation rates means subdued consumer confidence (even as compared to India, per-capita wealth in Sri Lanka is better).
All this means – Agency clients are not doing too well, and won’t do spectacularly well in the future too. That means, pressure on agency for margins, cuts in marketing expenditure etc. So if you are a suit and coming to Sri lanka to manage an agency, be prepared to lead a smaller biz with uncertain prospects.
As a planner too, the experience would be quite different. To begin with, since the businesses are smaller, agencies hire planners to look after a wider set of portfolio than anywhere else. In Ogilvy, I am the only planner. In other agencies too the teams are either non-existent or fairly small – largest being a team of three planners.
But the number of brands is not fewer – so it means I have less time on most brands. Pitches, launches, fire-fighting – a planner is spread thin over many projects. I never have visibility of my time beyond a week’s time. I am always busy or waiting to get busy soon.
So that means I don’t get to deep dive in category/ consumer understanding. I don’t have the luxury for doing it. I typically crack the brief on the day of client briefing, prepare the strategy deck the next morning. and iterate it over the next week while attending to other brands. I have adopted this work habit and am ‘comfortable’ with it. I doubt there would be many planners who would want this though – since this limits your control over long term projects – building IP, sharpening your skills, going after bigger challenges…
Like in most other countries, agencies are laggards in adopting their business practices for the digital age – they can’t foresee their marginalisation and plan for it. So even as I see opportunities with business strategy projects, design projects that could get us in higher margin services, the agency is simply not prepared to change yet. Like India, even here there is much room for learning growth of both servicing and creative folks. Like India, there is a limit to how much and what you can push for.
What that means is – same expectations as in other markets but with fewer resources and time.
Come here for – Experience of working with reasonable people. Experience of wider set of brands and consumer segments. Experience of pre-bubble universal-penetration economy.
(I would give another 2-3 years for the Chinese money to sustain Sri Lankan housing bubble.)
Don’t come here for – Bigger challenges, innovations, pushing boundaries of what you can do.
Very expensive living
Here’s my perspective about cost of living in Sri lanka compared to cities in India – (I have previously stayed in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad). Here’s a useful link from numbeo.com that compares cost of living fairly well. (though they tend to err on the side of caution.)
From a top level – I would say I spend about twice as much in Colombo as I did in Gurgaon. Consequently I am saving less here.
Coupled with the recent drop in exchange rate for LKR, (0.41 now for 1 INR. it was 0.46 half a year ago) the savings have taken a further hit. This rate of depreciation should be alarm enough for any would-be migrant to reconsider his negotiations.
Details are as follows –
Apart from restaurant, everything else is fairly expensive in Colombo.
1. Barring a few items (Soaps, etc), most Consumer goods (imported) could be two to three times costly. Consumer goods from local companies will be 1-5 to 2 times the Indian rates, mostly. There are exceptions of course.
2. Grocery is fairly expensive too , apart from seasonal local produce. Most things for Indian diet would be atleast 2-3 times costly.
(For eg. Bread – 160 – 200 LKR (In india 25-40 INR) , local Biscuits pack – 100 LKR (in India it would be 25 INR) , Eggs, 200 LKR for 10, etc)
3. Cars – i didn’t buy any – nano costs 15 million LKR here. that gives a perspective. Fuel costs are similar though.
4. Rentals – Hmm.. I would say expensive than Gurgaon, a little cheaper to Mumbai. It can go down if one plans to commute for an hour. But expensive vehicles punctures that economic logic. I would say, Gurgaon was cheaper because one can get new good apartments at much lower rates in a fairly decent locality. I was paying INR 30,000 in DLF Phase 1. For similar locations, here one might have to pay more than 150,000 LKR per month for a comparable home.
5. Electronics – similar to India in a basic electronics. However, as you go for beyond-basic electronics, your would be paying 3-4 times higher for value-added items.
6. Utilities – Phone bills are similar. However, electricity and water is a bit more expensive. I am again spending 1.5 to 2 times the amount here, even as I am using much less electricity. (Don’t need AC here that often).
7. Public transport – is similar to India in cost and experience. a bit cleaner though. My wife uses Pickme (a local uber) often and finds it fairly useful. Some annoying drivers notwithstanding, it is largely a decent experience.
Overall, cost is higher, but it is compensated with relatively cleaner air and opportunity to walk without being trampled upon and honked at.
In summation – Sri Lanka is a growing economy and a lovely place. So there are business opportunities that you may find here that you might not find at other places. So do come here if you have a plan in you mind and a realistic assessment of how you are going to achieve it. If you are coming here to serve in a company, demand a substantial hike and a house and a car. Hope this lowdown helps somebody in negotiating a better deal.
May 2018 update.
I just did a bit of analysis of my salary in view of inflation and exchange rate getting worse.
I received around 12% increment. It wasn’t a great year for the company, even though my contribution had been above average (more pitch wins by our team than the year before. first gold in Effie for agency. First ever WPP Atticus award too won by me.) In team spirit, I didn’t contest.
But the inflation from Aug 2016 (the month i started living here) to May 2018 has been effectively 8.39% (I considered CPI for each of these months to arrive at this.) In this period, the exchange rate has gone down from 2.169 to 2.428. And there was a revision in tax structure where allowances are also taxed.
So all in all, i received 4% effective increment in LKR. But in terms of INR, my income went down by 3.17%. Effectively, my income decreased here!
For anyone considering to move here, i would advice considering these factors – high inflation, high taxation, weak currency and no strong prospects unless you are investing in Chinese plans for the island.
I think my move was beneficial, since i got to escape one the most polluted places on the planet at a salary that wasn’t too bad. so it’s ok for me. Evaluate your own priorities and options.