ICTA vision and e-society program,
“taking the economy to the people”
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has a significant impact on the lives of people- bringing them closer together, making differences less important and amplifying economic activity and growth. However, rural Sri Lanka, where nearly 70% of the population lives, is yet to profit from these developments. The overall goal of the e-society programme is to promote the innovative use of ICT to meet the social and economic needs of the most vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka; to develop approaches to scale up successful applications; and to empower civil society with affordable access to information, communication, and relevant local content.
A significant issue for most ICT4D projects in rural areas is the lack of ICT related employment in those areas. Students who are trained beyond the basics of operating systems/office packages cannot apply their skills locally; they have to move to Colombo where the vast majority of private sector ICT organizations are based. This is a significant hurdle and many choose to ignore their advanced ICT skills and find whatever employment is available locally. This means that the outputs of advanced ICT skills of the students often fail to achieve the hoped for outcomes of reduced unemployment.
Mahavilachchiya, a village 45 km north of Anuradhapura is no exception to this rule. The Horizon Lanka Foundation, an organization based in this village community was able to introduce ICT to the village and particularly to the children of the village. This pocket of ICT literacy by some indicators had even exceeded most urban areas. However, ICT literacy did not lead to ICT jobs. Initially an effort was made to generate income through website development for foreign clients. Although they were executed successfully the results were sporadic and did not generate consistent sustainable income.
In order to obtain a more steady stream of ICT work, the Foundation for Advancing Rural Opportunities (FARO) developed a plan with support from Horizon Lanka to initiate a community owned Business Process Outsourcing company. Thus Ontime Technolgies (pvt) Limited came into being in Mahavilachchiya. Theoretically BPO’s can be located anywhere as long as there is a building, electricity and data connectivity. The reality however is that all medium to large scale BPO’s in Sri Lanka are situated in Colombo. FARO’s challenge apart from providing opportunity for gainful employment in ICT to the people of Mahavilachchiya, was to establish the concept that a BPO company could be successful even in a remote village in Sri Lanka. The shared services/BPO subsidiary of John Keells Holdings, InfoMate (pvt) Ltd was approached to provide the initial data entry work for the new BPO. Although the beginning of the project had a CSR element to it (John Keells CSR group) the ongoing work was to be treated as with any other BPO company and standard outsourcing activity. Ontime would have to provide quality, accurate service and meet rigorous standards on par with any BPO company in the world.
Initially two youth who were selected to lead the project were sent to Cambodia and India for BPO development training through funding support of the ICTA. After completing training Ontime Technolgies began operations in the top floor of the building in which Horizon Lanka was also situated. The building had been constructed by Mr. and Mrs. Chas Charles two generous donors who were very keen to see the Mahavilachchiya village youth gain education, competency and employment in the ICT field. Mrs. Charles’s daughter, Marissa Charles had spent three months as a volunteer in Mahavilachchiya and had a deep affection for the youth of the village. Following the inception of the new BPO Company, ICTA’s eSociety Partnership Assistance Programme funded the purchase of infrastructure and connectivity leading to the creation of a state of the art BPO company in the village of Mahavilachchiya. Operators were trained on SAP (the leading ERP system) by John Keells and the project was firmly established. The BPO as an independent entity grew from 5 seats to 18 seats and is expected to get to 20 seats soon. Productivity is even better than that of the InfoMate operation in Colombo and quality and accuracy standards are at very satisfactory levels. In its second year of operation, the revenue per annum reached Rs 2 million. Given the grant value from ICTA of LKR 3.75 million, the return on investment exceeds that of many private sector firms and does indeed prove that BPO’s with dedicated staff and strong support networks can succeed anywhere in Sri Lanka.
Further supporting this conclusion is the second ICTA supported project in Seenigama, a tsunami devastated village. The new BPO is located in the premises of the well established community of the FOUNDATION OF GOODNESS (www.unconditionalcompassion.org). It provides employment and career opportunity to the economically disfranchised youth of the area. This will also be a John Keells business supported project with the funding for infrastructure and training support coming from an ICTA. This BPO commenced operations during the last quarter of 2010 under the incorporated name of Seenigama BPO Technologies Pvt Ltd. The initial batch of six operator owners has been scaled up to fifteen seats during 2011 and had revenue of Rs 146,000 for the month of September 2011. There is no doubt that this BPO will also have an annual income of over Rs 2 million in the near future. The ICTA grant value for this project is Rs 2 million producing a better ROI than in Mahavilachchiya.
ICTA, FARO and Hayleys have also recently begun a third project in Uduvil, Jaffna.