Sri Lankans use IT to beat
poverty By Feizal Samath
MAHAVILACHCHIYA, Sri Lanka - 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
[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
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
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."