In 1983, the then Minister of Trade and Shipping Lalith Athulathmudali inaugurated the Mahapola Lottery, which eventually became the Development Lotteries Board (DLB). Today, it remains the only public institution to donate its dividends to the President’s Fund. From the beginning, the intention was, not to make money for the government, but to provide vital services to the needy people of the country.
“What we do is carry out CSR work on a permanent basis,” SAP Suriyapperuma, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the DLB, told OSL. “Our objective is to collect money for the President’s Fund. We remit to the President’s Fund our end-of-the-month bottom-line total profit. We do not pay any funds to the Treasury, because we do not have any such objective.”
Over the ten years up to 2018 (the last year of published accounts) the DLB contributed LKR 2,185 million to the President’s Fund. That is the highest contribution ever. This year, he expects to contribute even more than that.
The President’s Fund helps, especially, the health sector. During the past 37 years, the President’s Fund has helped poor people to get medical treatment. In an emergency, they can go to a private hospital to get treatment and the President’s Fund will pay about 60% of the cost. The aid of the President’s Fund is most important for kidney patients who cannot afford a kidney transplant, and who cannot stay in a waiting list.
The President’s Fund remits 50% of the profit to the Mahapola Trust Fund. Suriyapperuma explains that, from 1983 to the present, the Mahapola Scholarship and Bursary scheme has aided 306,000 scholars in every sector to gain an education and become doctors, engineers, managers, bankers, and technicians.
“Earlier, the scholarship allowance was worth LKR 3,600,” he says, “but last year they increased it to LKR 5,000. We did some research and found that, some of the students use the allowance, not only for their own education, but spend LKR 3,000 and remit LKR 2,000 to their parents for the education of their sisters and brothers.”
“In that context,” he continues, “the LKR 20 we collect from society, from the consumer, in exchange for a lottery ticket, goes towards development. Although we do not contribute to development in the sense of constructing buildings or bridges, we do contribute to, on the one hand, human capital development, creating the experts who build these and, on the other hand we give poor people the right to a living.”
Of course, he admits that the remaining 80% are looking for a jackpot, or a super-prize, in order to improve their lives. These punters are the consumers, one of the four pillars on which Sri Lanka’s lottery business is built. The lottery industry runs entirely upon trust. Consumers must know that they will win prizes, and that the process will be free of malpractice. So the lotteries industry in Sri Lanka is run entirely by the government and is fully transparent.
“If it went to the private sector,” says Suriyapperuma, “there could be malpractices. We publish all our information for the benefit of the consumers. We inform the public through the newspapers about how many millionaires we have created. We video all our winners and show them once a month on television, and publish their names in the newspapers – that is, unless they themselves object.”
Nooks and crannies
He enunciates the remaining three pillars upon which the lottery business is built. “The first is the investors, the institutions which have invested in the DLB, the Mahapola and the President’s Fund. The next is the Board, management and employees of the DLB. The third pillar is the main link between us and the consumer, our network of 95 district distributors, who are connected to 2,700 agents. Each agent oversees sales assistants, who number 15,000, who sell our tickets in every nook and cranny of the island. So, all told, about 300,000 people gain their livelihood by this means.”
When Suriayapperuma took over, he did not want to increase spending. The DLB would spend LKR 400 million on advertising, so he cut that down to LKR 300 million and used the DLB staff in the field to increase sales.
The DLB had a great many issues with the local authorities, because their counters were over fifteen years old and in a state of disrepair. So when he took over, he initiated a scheme to issue new, multi-coloured, spacious and well-ventilated counters.
“We now get very strong, attractive counters manufactured to our specifications. We started from the North and East, because even after the civil conflict, lotteries did not develop properly in those areas. We gave out 100 counters free of charge to get the people to invest in it. Just setting up a new counter can attract 200-300 new customers. Last year we had a 24% growth in ticket sales in the North and East. We plan this year to distribute 250 counters around the country, using the concept that “your workplace should be proper”.
This is supplemented by actions enabling and empowering the grassroots sales personnel. Last year, the institution donated 108 tricycles for disabled people, employed as sales assistants, of whom the DLB has 550, especially needy people working for them. The DLB and the NLB employ the most disabled people in Sri Lanka.
“In Jaffna we donated six tricycles and seven counters to disabled sales assistants in Jaffna. These people, rather than begging in the marketplace, develop their livelihoods with the small help we give them. If they can sell a thousand tickets a day, they can make LKR 2,000 daily.”
Apart from the disabled, the lotteries industry employs an extremely high proportion, over 80%, of elderly sales assistants and all but one in ten are past Sri Lanka’s retirement age of 55. Some of the agents are 75 years of age but are still in the field, because there are no restrictions on age, or on hours of work – some ladies work from home, going from house to house in their own village.
With the money saved from advertising, the DLB started organising medical camps for the elderly and disabled sales assistants.
“The medical camps are very popular,” Suriyapperuma speaks excitedly. “We did the first in Colombo, then in Kurunegala, Galle, Kandy and Bandarawela. The people leave their work and come for the camp. Two weeks before, we take their blood and urine samples, opticians check their eyes – very important for reading lottery numbers. On the day of the camp, we hire ten doctors, ten nurses, and ten opticians who will check everything and provide medicine free of charge. If they need further attention, they will be directed to the doctors’ clinics.”
With such programmes for the workforce in place, they are enthused above and beyond what could be expected from their commission. This became apparent following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, when sales fell to 80% of their previous level.
“Of course we had to introduce promotion campaigns, new faces. Ticket selling cannot be traditional all the time. You must give attractive prizes, change the face value of the ticket, come out with new slogans, do things to win people’s minds, road
shows. While our target was 100%, thanks to our customers and shareholders, our achievement now is 106%.”
It is a measure of the strength of Sri Lanka’s lotteries industry that it had the fastest recovery of any field of commerce following the attacks. And at the heart of its strength is its commitment to human capital.