Sri Lankans use IT to beat poverty
In a north-central village, deep inside Sri Lanka's backwoods, a young man is glued to a computer screen, pushing a mouse and filling in figures. Isuru Senevirathna is entering data at Sri Lanka's first business processing outsourcing (BPO) company set up in a village, and probably among the first in the world that is surrounded by tall trees, bird calls, paddy fields and streams.
"It's nice to be able to do a job like this," the 20-year-old youth, operations director of OnTime Pvt. Ltd, told Inter Press Service. BPO is a growing IT business which Sri Lanka embraced with relish. Dozens of companies are now springing up in Colombo as many of the world's best Western corporations look for cost-effective ways to handle their back-office operations in countries where labor and communications are cheaper.
But OnTime's setting, next to a wildlife park, and subject to the occasional threat by Tamil Tiger guerrillas, makes it unique. Mahavilachchiya lies 250 kilometers north of Colombo and the fact that it is close to the ancient town of Anuradhapura is an added feature. OnTime owes its existence to the vision of Nandasiri Wanninayaka (better known as "Wanni"), an English teacher-turned village entrepreneur. Except for its sylvan location it is no different from the rest of the BPO industry. Its clients include John Keells, Sri Lanka's biggest conglomerate, and once the blinds are drawn and with air-conditioners running, it could well be an office in downtown Colombo. OnTime operators log into an accounting system through a secured link and enter data like prices and inventories.
Some 150 documents are handled by each operator per day. New clients negotiating with OnTime include Dialog Telekom, Sri Lanka's biggest mobile phone operator, and Singer, the multinational sewing machine giant. "The BPO entry came because we needed to create job opportunities for our youngsters to remain in the village after their initial training in English and IT," said Wanni. OnTime is a part of the "Horizon Lanka" initiative launched by Wanni, while still a schoolteacher, in 1998.
Starting off as an English teaching exercise for the children of rice farmers, its scope widened dramatically following the gift of a personal computer by the United States Embassy. From there the village quickly progressed into a center of IT learning where one in every eight families now has a computer (a ratio of 100 computers for 800 families). Impoverished farmers are now reading online newspapers in their ramshackle homes with the help of seven wireless nodes. The villages have wireless Internet access at all times. Wanni and his Horizon Lanka exploits are legendary and have been profiled in newspapers and other media across the world.
The IT village's big moment came when Wanni and his best students shared the stage with Intel chairman Craig Barrett in December 2005, during the latter's visit to Sri Lanka. Wanni said the idea of setting up a BPO emerged as he pondered the next stage of development. "Having taught English and then IT, the next issue was where do they get jobs? How can we retain them in the village?" he said.
Enter the Foundation for Advancing Rural Opportunities in Sri Lanka (FAROLanka) to help Horizon set up its BPO and find its first client. FARO's help however comes with conditions - Wanni's support and guidance to help other villages develop on similar lines. Sponsored by John Keells, OnTime staff received BPO training in Laos and India. For other Mahavilachchiya youngsters, the choice of careers is limited to joining the armed forces (or, in the case of girls, garment factories) or remain in the village as a farmer.
OnTime's CEO Nirosh Manjula Ranathunga, a 30-year-old university graduate who studied IT while doing his commerce degree, lives in Anuradhapura and visits Horizon only twice a week because he says he can handle operations from his hometown easily over the Internet. Ranathunga is interested in transferring his skills and learning to other villages. "I joined Horizon Lanka two years ago as a project manager and am very happy with this BPO initiative," he said.
Some 50 youths are now being trained to take up BPO jobs in Mahavilachchiya. In a reversal of sorts, boys and girls from the cities are now visiting Horizon Lanka. "They come here to learn from us," said Wanni. Because of their English speaking and writing skills, youngsters here are beginning to write software programmes for overseas companies and individuals earning foreign exchange.
They have a far better future - compared to youths from other villages - as computer programmers, software programmers and related jobs. "This [OnTime] has helped us to take on the world from this small hamlet," says 24-year-old Chamila Priyadharshini. Currently in a state-sponsored teachers training course for English, Tamil (language of the biggest minority group) and Japanese, Priyadharshini says she wants to be a trained teacher in three years and spends her spare time teaching IT and English at the Horizon center.
Replete with a modern gym, video and audio equipment and other electronic modern gadgetry the center also prepares youth for other aspects of urban life, should they choose move out.
Wanni's current target? "I want to send at least one youngster from here to the prestigious MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in the United States."
(Inter Press Service)