Fair trade is child’s play for wooden toy firm Lanka Kade

Wooden toy company Lanka Kade has taken fair trade into the mainstream by sourcing products from artisan Sri Lankan manufacturers that are sold into Europe and other markets. But with the end of the UK- EU transition period set to complicate Britain’s trading relationship with Europe, the Leicestershire company has turned to the ChamberCustoms service for help. Co-founder Diane Soysa explains to Dan Robinson how important this has been to continuing the firm’s ethos.


very month, a ship leaves Sri Lanka with at least one 40ft-long container packed with wooden children’s toys.

It is headed for England, where it

will eventually be delivered to a warehouse in Market Harborough for unloading and picking. The team at Lanka Kade sort

through the colourful animal figures, sealife jigsaws and fire engines into gift sets for distribution across the UK and continental Europe, mostly via lorry. Until now, it’s been a relatively

smooth process between the artisan Sri Lankan manufacturers and British, German and Dutch independent retailers, but 1 January 2021 is set to complicate all that. “A lot of the European orders go

from the UK because it has been very easy to expand the market next door to us,” says Lanka Kade’s co-founder and director Diane Soysa. “So I’m horrified by Brexit as

there’s going to be a huge expense. I don’t think there’s anything we’re going to gain and we have a lot to take into account now due to toy safety marking and labelling.” To navigate the stormy waters

faced by many exporters as the transition period between Britain and the EU comes to an end in less

than three months, Lanka Kade has turned to the international team at East Midlands Chamber for support via the ChamberCustoms service. A new trading relationship with

the EU will involve new requirements for customs declarations when sending goods across borders, and the Chamber is helping importers and exporters to ensure their customs clearance is accurate, timely and avoids additional costs through delays or errors.

Diane adds: “We used to go

through a freight forwarder and trading with Europe was really simple, but now we’re having to relabel our products and make sure we give them all a clear customs code. “There’s a lot of paperwork

involved that we didn’t need to know about beforehand, but the Chamber has been really useful in helping us in these areas by holding some informative training sessions for our staff. “Having to do exports and

imports documentation is an additional cost to the business so we really need to keep those prices down.”

LANKA KADE, WHICH employs 10 people in the UK and another eight in Sri Lanka, is the product of a volunteering expedition for ex- teacher Diane. She first turned up

32 business networkOctober 2020

on the South Asian island in 1987 to work for charities including Save the Children, introducing play activities in its day centres and pre- schools. It was during another role as a

translator for the Red Cross when she met her future husband Upul, a Sri Lankan native. Despite eventually moving to England in 1992, they didn’t want to lose touch with a country that was very close to them both and set up Lanka Kade – which translates as “The Sri Lankan Shop” – in 1994. Beginning life by stocking

imported toys in suitcases at their Market Harborough home and selling at trade fairs, Diane and Upul recruited their product designer neighbour Anne Westgate as their first employee to carve out their niche. She has been responsible for designing the distinctive range of toys – there’s about 1,200 at any one time – which are educational, have bright and bold colours, and natural wood finishes. “The emphasis is on low-tech,”

explains Diane. “They’re aimed at under-sevens generally as that’s the age group from my teaching background.

Lanka Kade supplies wooden toys made in Sri Lanka across the world

“They’re inspired by some of the

products made in Sri Lanka but, as we realised many of these are copied all over the country, we’ve created our own unique designs.” This is a crucial part of the

business model as Lanka Kade only works with selected Sri Lankan artisan manufacturers – there are currently 10 on board, ranging in size from six to 35 staff – that agree to pay both their workers and suppliers fairly and on time. Diane says: “The idea came that

if we’re going to go into business, we’re going to work with good people and ensure everyone down the line gets paid properly. “Because myself and Upul both

speak the language, we can go absolutely anywhere in the country and find suppliers that otherwise wouldn’t have access to an export market. We work with them to stabilise their business and provide

Diane Soysa

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