Leapfrogging Out of Poverty on IT – Inter Press Service (IPS) – October 25, 2007

OnTime BPO

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.

OnTime BPO Team
OnTime BPO Team

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.’’

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