Shanaka Fernando: Social Entrepreneur

Almost fifteen years ago, a young Shanaka Fernando dreamed of a world based on need rather than greed. He wished people would focus less on money and more on each other, and wondered if the act of giving would make a difference.

It was a philosophical question, about generosity: ‘If we are as generous as possible, would people value that and reciprocate? Could we create a culture of generosity?’ Although Shanaka was born into comfortable circumstances in Sri Lanka, as a child he’d seen the struggles of those less fortunate than himself. As a student in Australia he wondered what would happen if food was made available to people without them having to worry about money.

Not content to wonder, Shanaka took action, and in early 2000 opened the first restaurant of the not-for profit organisation Lentil as Anything in St Kilda. The restaurant served simple, nutritious vegetarian food with the help of local volunteer staff. ‘I knew that it wasn’t being done anywhere else. I hoped it would work, and was happy to try for three months. I knew that people needed an opportunity to bring out the best in themselves.’ Nearly fifteen years later, his experiment in generosity is a success: Lentil as Anything has five restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, and each has no fixed prices – some customers pay more than the cost of providing the food, others are not able to pay at all.