A village based business process outsourcing (BPO) service that handles part of the backoffice operations of Sri Lanka’s largest diversified company, has also been contracted by the country’s biggest telecoms operator, whilst having talks to provide similar services to Sri Lanka’s largest white goods supplier.
This BPO operation located at Mahawilachchiya, Anuradhapura, that processes data of suppliers’ to John Keells supermarket chain (a process that began some months ago) has now been employed by Dialog Telekom to process some of their market research data, Dilip Jayawickrama, Projects Director, Foundation for Advancing Rural Opportunity in Sri Lanka (FARO), an NGO, told The Sunday Leader.
FARO, which was among seven NGOs to receive World Bank grants of Rs. five million each through the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) on Wednesday to develop ICT opportunities to the rural and disadvantaged people, provides support to this BPO operation in Mahawillachchiya.
The village youth involved in this project, some eight of them, had their basics right, that is having a working knowledge of English and in the use of computers, due to the work of another NGO, Horizon, said Jayaweera.
“This made it possible for our entry, such a foundation has to be first laid before we can move in,” he added. Jayaweera said that outsourcing of this work by Keells has helped them to cut costs, with eight of their staff who were involved in this work earlier, being relocated to other departments.
He alleged that Dialog which hit the top in a short span of under 15 years, with most, if not all of their work done inhouse, were somewhat cautious in outsourcing their work, though a start has been made, with some of their market research data being now handled at Mahawilachchiya.
In the case of Singer, talks have been initiated, with no business deals having been yet procured, he said. Jayaweera further said that he wants to start a similar BPO unit in Seenigama, a village which was devastated in the recent tsunami.
MAHAWILACHCHIYA, Oct 25 2007 (IPS) – 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.
This BPO team deep in the backwoods of Sri Lanka competes with city firms for global customers.
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 IPS..
BPO is a growing IT business which Sri Lanka has taken to quite capably. Dozens of companies are now springing up in Colombo as the world’s best corporations look for cost-effective ways of handling their back-office operations in countries where labour and communications are cheaper than in the West.
But OnTime’s setting, next to a wildlife park, and subject to the occasional threat by Tamil Tiger guerrillas, makes it unique. Mahawilachchiya lies 250 km 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 Nanda 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. It boasts of such clients as John Keells, Sri Lanka’ 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 one operator per day. New client negotiating with OnTime include Dialog Telekom, Sri Lanka’s biggest mobile phone operator, and Singer, a multinational known for its sewing machines.
“The BPO entry came as 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 centre 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 wifi nodes set up using ‘MESH’ technology. 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 over 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?”
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 Mahawilachchiya youngsters, the choice of careers is limited to joining the armed forces (in the case of girls it’s 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 as he says he can handle operations from his hometown easily over 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 Mahawilachchiya.
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 in 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 centre.
Replete with a modern gym, video and audio equipment and other electronic modern gadgetry the centre prepares youth for a life in the city, 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.’’
Fancy having city kids go into the village to learn? Usually it’s the other way around. But the Horizon Lanka IT village at Mahawilachchiya in Anuradhapura plays host to students from the cities and towns keen on learning IT and this small hamlet has taken Sri Lankan skills to a different plane on this planet.
Sri Lanka’s first IT village, Horizon Lanka, where a group of youth processes data for a fee has given city folk and policy planners many lessons. The first and most important lesson is that English is vital in a globalised world and for those education planners who think they should disturb the current English language education stream in government schools and provide a mix of English and Sinhalese subjects, the message from this small village is don’t!
If not for English and subsequently IT (without English you cannot learn IT), Mahawilachchiya would have been a backward village, unheard and unsung where youngsters grow up joining the military, garment factories or idle as Arts graduates without jobs.
Now because of their almost-perfect English speaking and writing skills, these youngsters are writing software programmes for overseas companies and individuals earning foreign exchange and laptops as gifts.
They have a far better future – than youth from other villages — as computer programmers, software programmers and in connected jobs.
Unlike the city where people grumble about food costs, unruly politicians, politics and the peace process, Mahavilachchiya residents spend their time in more productive ways. There is no huge debate about the plight of the country despite the fact that the village lies next to the Wilpattu National Park and on the Mannar border and even though some men have been abducted apparently by the Tigers.
Here farmers read online newspapers at home after a hard day’s work with the help of donated computers and Wifi-zones; children study English and IT after school and soon become computer geeks having their own blogs and get a training at the Horizon Lanka complex to prepare themselves for city life. There is a modern gym, video and audio CD players and other modern gadgetry so that village youth know how to deal with city life.
It’s like a village in motion heading towards a dream, parts of which have been fulfilled and a few more parts to be filled. Horizon founder Wanni’s dream is to send a youngster to the prestigious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the US and given the commitment of these children and support from others, that’s most likely to happen in the not-too-distant-future.
The irony is that while Mahawilachchiya youngsters have access to modern technology via the Internet and sophisticated IT equipment like Wifi zones and massive transmission towers like city youth, they are un-spoilt by these trappings.
For example the BP operations director has no complaints about his less than Rs 10,000 salary and proudly says he saved enough to buy a motor cycle.
The youngsters are also competent in making power point presentations in English while their blogs have drawn comments and input from across the world. The success of this IT village in the jungle is expected to see a similar transformation of other villages with the help of Wanni and his dedicated band of IT experts.
English and IT are the only way forward as Mahawilachchiya has proved in its newest state of progression into BPO outfits to provide jobs. Without English, no country can progress in the globalised world while without IT we would be left behind as others in the region develop at a faster pace.
These are lessons from a small village for policymakers and the business community with the most important being — we need to be more productive than spending time on politics!
MAHAWILACHCHIYA, Anuradhapura – Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) is a growing business globally which Sri Lanka has now cottoned onto quite capably.
Dozens of BPO’s are springing up here as global companies look for cost effective ways of handling their back-office operations in countries where labour and communications are cheaper than the west.
Yet ever heard of a BPO company in a jungle setting, next to a wild life park and subject to the occasional threat by the LTTE? OnTime Pvt Ltd is part of rural Sri Lanka’s first IT village, Horizon Lanka in the backwoods of Mahavilachchiya (adjoining Wilpattu) off Anuradhapura, where a group of youth processes data for a fee.
There is nothing different in the BPO industry in processing information inside the office of the client or the service provider located elsewhere. For example, staff at Mahavilachchiya’s proud company, OnTime, processing marketing data for a John Keells Group subsidiary daily could – if we close the curtains in this nice office surrounded by shady trees and occasional bird calls – very well be inside a JKH office in Colombo. There’s nothing different.
OnTime operators log into a JKH SAP accounting system through a secured link and enter data like prices and quality of suppliers. Some 150 documents are handled by one operator per day. Dialog Telekom and Singer are expected to join OnTime as its next clients with negotiations going on with the two parties.
“The BPO entry came as we needed to create job opportunities for our youngsters to remain in the village after their initial learning in English and IT,” said Nanda Wanninayaka (better known as ‘Wanni”), the village boy-English teacher-turned village entrepreneur.
Horizon Lanka, Sri Lanka’s first IT village, is a revelation itself. Launched by Wanni, as a Mahawilachchiya school teacher, in 1998, the initiative began as an English teaching exercise for the children whose parents were mostly rice farmers. From there with one computer donated by the US embassy, impressed by an English journal that the students did, the village has progressed to a centre of IT learning where one in every eight families has a computer (a ratio of 100 computers for 800 families).
Unheard of before but in these backwoods poor farmers are reading online newspapers in the comfort of their makeshift homes with uptodate computers with the help – unbelievable again – of seven wifi zones under a new technology called MESH. Here a section of the village amidst paddy fields and streams has wireless Internet access at all times.
Wanni and his Horizon Lanka exploits are legendary and profiled in newspapers and TV stations across the world. The IT village’s biggest opportunity probably came when Wanni and his best students shared the stage with Intel Chairman Dr. Craig Barrett in December 2005, during the latter’s visit to Sri Lanka and presence at a major IT conference.
The idea of setting up a BPO emerged as Wanni pondered on the next level 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 asked.
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 some conditions – Wanni’s support and guidance to help other villages to develop on similar lines which the latter and his team are more than willing to do.
Isuru Senevirathna is OnTime’s Operations Director. He has received BPO training – along with another OnTime employee – in Laos and India sponsored by John Keells.
The 20-year old youth like any other Mahavilachchiya youngster would have had to either join the armed forces (in the case of girls it’s garment factories) or remain in the village as a farmer, until Wanni and his vision came along. Now Isuru is the proud owner of a motor cycle, happy and contended.
OnTime CEO is Nirosh Manjula Ranathunga, a 30 year-old graduate from Kelaniya University who studied IT while doing his B.Com degree. Ranathunga, who lives in Anuradhapura and visits Horizon twice a week saying he can handle operations from his home town easily through email/Internet, is also interested in transferring his skills and learning to other villages. He has his own company, Real Business Solutions, and runs a formerly-owned Horizon Lanka cyber café in Anuradhapura.
“I joined Horizon Lanka two years ago as a project manager and I’am very happy with this BPO initiative,” he said. Some 50 youths are being trained to take up BPO jobs in Mahavilachchiya which has a modern computer lab with 512 KBPS Internet connection. The Horizon Lanka website is www.horizonlanka.org