BPO in the A’pura Backwoods – Financial Times – the Sunday Times – October 21, 2007

OnTime BPO Operators
OnTime BPO Operators
OnTime BPO Operators

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

What dreams may come true! Rural BPO, Sri Lanka – i4d – July, 2007

OnTime BPO
OnTime BPO

Isuru Senevirathna
Horizon Lanka Foundation
However, now I am 19 years old and I am confident that we can do something for our village from the knowledge we gained during a period of about nine years from Horizon Lanka.

‘Horizon Lanka’, the model for taking ICT to the rural villages, is a famous word in Sri Lanka. It is also receiving international recognition. In fact, we never thought of creating a model to take ICT to the rural villages. First, we only wanted to develop our village. For this, we had a great hero to guide us. He is Mr. Nandasiri Wanninaya, our English teacher since 1998. I was 11 years old then.

Mr. Nandasiri was teaching us English in a public school of my village. His teaching method was able to attract us to the subject, although English was a subject hated by most children. Before Mr. Nandasiri it was difficult to learn, as we did not have a teacher who could teach us in a better way. But, Mr. Nandasiri managed to turn the tables. While we were continuing studies, our elder brothers and sisters started a journal called ‘The Horizon’. We wrote stories to that journal and Mr. Nandasiri photocopied them from the nearest town, which is 40 kilometers away from my village. By a stroke of good luck, the US embassy found out about the journal through an article which was written by Mr. Gamini Akmemana for a public English newspaper in Sri Lanka. The US embassy helped us with a 486 model computer and a dot-matrix printer, along with some computer books.

Mr. Nandasiri started teaching us about computers with the knowledge he gained from reading those books, as he himself did not have enough knowledge about computers. Each student got 5 minutes to operate the computer under Mr. Nandasiri’s guidance. This was a fantastic experience for us children of poor farmers.

With Nandasiri sir’s leaving public school, we were really sad since nobody could do Nandasiri sir’s job there. We did not give up our way. We got together as a team and talked him to arrange an English class for us. He accepted our request and started the class under a huge mango tree in his garden. and we did not forget to continue the journal too. A family called Gaminitilake donated a used computer to our English class and we stared a website with their help and uploaded it from the town. Through the website, we got a big publicity throughout the world. It was a big revolution of us. Lot of donors came to us and helped to improve our English and computer knowledge. Eventually we could build a small computer room with the support of donors and the capacity of our parents. This was our journey……

Today we have a modern computer Lab that was donated by Mr & Mrs. Charles. And we could build a tower to connect to the Internet from our village since we had to travel 80 kilometers up and down to access internet from the nearest city ‘Anuradhapura’.

However, now I am 19 years old and I am confident that we can do something for our village from the knowledge we gained during a period of about nine years from Horizon Lanka.

About ten months ago, I realised one of the dream, in my life. I could travel to two countries for a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) training. I never had been out from this small island. But I was lucky to travel to Laos and New Delhi in India with the sponsorship of ICT Agency of Sri Lanka. During that training, we could see practically their operations and the way a BPO company meets the clients’ demand, on time with good quality. Eventually we ended the training and returned to Sri Lanka with the mind of starting our BPO Company in Mahawilachchiya. After a training period of three months, we had an opportunity to start a BPO company in rural Mahawilachchiya village. A foundation called FARO (Foundation for Advancing Rural Opportunities) is helping us in the initial stage to run the company. Already we have started the company named OnTime Technologies (Pvt) Ltd. John Keells is a major client of us.

We also are discussing with Dialog Telekom Ltd. and Singer Sri Lanka to get some more work for our youth. Around 50 youths are being trained to take up BPO jobs from Mahavilachchiya. Mahavilachchiya has very good infrastructure like a modern computer lab with 512 KBPS internet connection, 50 computers in the village households – 30 of them are connected to Internet through mesh technology – and 7 Wi-Fi zones in the village where you can use your laptops. Through our company, we are offering job opportunities for the youths in the village. This is a big revolution in the village and we are happy to say. This is what we wanted to do. However, we could do it. Now we are using same Horizon Lanka building and Horizon Lanka equipments. In the future, we hope to develop our company as the largest BPO company in Sri Lanka and build a huge building and develop as an our owned company. Nirosh Manjula, who trained with me in Laos and India and I am running this company.

I take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped us to success this journey.

Horizon Lanka Foundation

The Horizon Lanka Foundation was established in 1998 because of the determination of a group of children from the rural village of Mahavilachchiya. Their thirst for knowledge and educational advancement led them to the door of Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayaka (now CEO of HL Foundation), their former English teacher in the public school. Thus began an after school club providing children further education in English and computers. It has become a popular place for many children of the village. Since 1998, the Horizon Lanka Foundation has branched out. As well as providing an all round education to the village children at Horizon Lanka Academy, they have expanded into the Information Age and now service the entire community with their computer lab, which has 24h Internet access. In 2001, the website www.horizonlanka.org was launched by the children of Horizon Lanka Academy, opening a window to the world.

HLF is also responsible for beginning a project, which is bringing PCs to the homes of the villagers of Mahavilachchiya. So far more than 30 homes have been furnished with a computer and this is increasing monthly. MicroScholarships is a project of the Horizon Lanka foundation that aims to help deserving students in their education. Many capable students in rural Sri Lanka are forced to interrupt their schooling because of financial difficulties. MicroScholarships ensure that every child covered under the scheme gets a quality education and a happy childhood. Under it, volunteers offer financial assistance that gives the child a small amount of money every month. The efforts, funded purely by kind donations and sponsorship, are now providing over 160 students of the village with computing skills, access to the Internet, PCs in their homes, an Academy to improve their education specializing in ICT and English and most importantly, giving the children and community fresh hope for their futures.

Source: www.horizonlanka.org

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