Looking back five years to Horizon Lanka – Sarath Kumara, Sydney, Australia

In April 2002, I stumbled upon a web site with the URL horizon77.org. (now this has been changed to www.horizonlanka.org) This website made a great impression on every one who visited it. Gradually word spread around friends and many came forward to help in numerous ways without any hesitation.

I think that it is time to share their success story with all of you to give a clear picture on where is Horizon is today.

Horizon is a classic story of the perseverance, determination and dedication of humble man by the name of Wanninayaka.

In 1998 Wanni started Horizon penniless with one old computer. Today it has transformed in to a non profitable organization “Horizon Lanka Foundation” with asset value of around Rs 9.4 million as at 31 March 2006.

Surrounded by beautiful scenery, this farming village in Mahawilachchiya did not have a single telephone, no mobile coverage and roads leading to it were filled with pot holes. To make matters worse, the villagers always lived in fear due to the terrorist activities happening all around it. Mahawilachchiya is part of the Raja Rata and ancient ruins are abundant. It is close to famous Thanthirimale Raja Maha Viharaya. www.tantirimale.org

Initial help came mainly through expatriates, few foreigners and also from a few locals. The only link with the outside world was through website and e-mails. Back then, communication was very hard, an odd e-mail once a week was the only way for communication. For Wanni this meant that he had to travel 40 KM to the nearest town Anuradhapura with internet access. Without any source of income this itself was a daunting task. The only assets they had were the few old computers that he used to teach children. At this time there were about 20 students learning English and Computers – free of charge.

Then Wanni envisioned the idea of an advisory panel to help Horizon Lanka. I think this was a significant step in the right direction at the time. The initial panel comprised of two gentlemen from USA, one from Canada, one from the Middle East, one from Sri Lanka and two from Australia.

After this, things began to change; first came the computer lab; a single story building which could house about 20 computers. Here, Wanni and few dedicated teachers worked almost 18 hours a day. Teaching the children and learning themselves. The first major road block came regarding funding for this building and controlling of Horizon. A lot of threats and heartache resulted from this to many involved with the project. However, with collective support to Horizon’s management, they managed to overcome this issue. By this time student numbers increased to around 200. All except the computer education, classes were conducted outside in the open.

It was recognised at the time that if Horizon could get 24 hour internet access, the success of the Horizon will be faster. Once again dedicated people from all over the globe funded this project. With the help of LankaCom http://www.lankacom.net, a Sri Lankan internet service provider Horizon managed to get 24 hour internet through a radio link, at considerably low rate. This was the 2nd turning point for Horizon.

Gradually many people donated computers and other agencies and companies such as ICTA, Slimline, Microimage showed increasing interest. The student population increased to more than 200. They started teaching four subjects; mathematics, English, science and computers. IDM Computer Academy offered free scholarships for the senior students of Horizon.

Students started passing O/L with flying colours; the especially higher marks for English are worth mentioning. They learned and mastered graphic design and website development. After adding culture to the curriculum they excelled in dancing, singing and drama without any external help. Horizon maintained the Horizon Lanka web, comparable to leading websites all around the month. They mastered the search engines and manage to exceed 100,000 hits per month. Even with donor criticism for high expenses Wanni decided to dedicate separate web sites for each project. The following are a few of the beautiful websites created by the dedicated children of Horizon.

Today Horizon is reaping the benefits of having these dedicated websites. Gradually the media became interested. The following link shows the extent of media exposure of Horizon. www.horizonlanka.org/media/index.html.

Mastery of web development by the Horizon kids provides ample proof if anyone was to compare a government run school website to the Horizon web site. http://www.schoolnet.lk Aren’t these children from a remote corner of Sri Lanka setting standards for the whole country and the government institutions?

Even today, if there is any place in Sri Lanka with prompt response to e-mails, Horizon is it. It is a place where no one can tell when they go to sleep and when their day begins; such is the dedication of the kids, staff and Wanni.

As with any success; there came the second wave of problems. Most of the students didn’t have money to pay even a nominal fee for running the institution. Their parents, primarily farmers had income that was seasonal. As a result Horizon struggled to pay teacher salaries and other basic necessities such as electricity and internet access. Pressure was mounted by donors to collect fees regularly without understanding the ground situation. Again many donors chipped in and paid teacher salaries, and other bills, greatly helping to stabilize the situation.

Horizon never flourished in isolation they helped nearby schools to acquire computers and internet facilities. Help was given to similar initiatives from other parts of the country, by way of giving publicity, provided contacts and training for the staff. Wanni did not stop there; he highlighted deficiencies in the local hospital to the donors to get help for better health care to the villagers. They trained people in the nearby Police Station, Home guards posts and Army detachment in computer education. In turn they too helped Horizon with great care and dedication; it’s a great achievement and example to all.

Internet Connections to the Public schools in the village

The mesh internet project paved the way for internet access to the whole village through Horizon internet tower. The first ever mesh network sponsored by the UNDP’s Pan Asia R&D Grants Program through the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, was declared open by Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, the Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka on 22nd Nov 2006. The many academics sitting in well paid jobs did not believe that the mesh project would work.

Mahavilachchiya’s mesh Internet project on Sirasa TV

Today, “The Mahavilachchiya e-Village with its high density of computers is a significant chapter in ICT development in the country. This is symbolic and a message for marginal level communities all over the world.”

Success is not only increasing in the education field but roads are being renovated, property values are going up and whole area has found new hope. There are many individual success stories. A national auxiliary force member (Home guard) who was assigned to Horizon for security, learned off a computer during his off duty periods and became a computer teacher is one such story.

Recently one of the Horizon donors bought a two-acre land to launch a long overdue e-farmers pilot project. A young farmer who was virtually illiterate is responsible for cultivating this land. To date he is doing it very successfully using drip irrigation. The Agriculture Department is providing the required guidance and funding for this project.

Dialog Telekom covered Mahawilachchiya with mobile coverage in December 2006 even before it covered bigger towns like Mihinthale in Anuradhapura to appreciate what Horizon Lanka is doing for the community.

The most exciting challenge ever taken by Horizon:

Horizon is launching a BPO project from next week. For this purpose, a new company named Ontime Technologies Pvt Ltd is formed. The share holders for this company will be none other than Wanni and the children and the villagers. This project is in partnership with a non-profit organization called FAROLanka http://www.farolanka.org. John Keels is to outsource its IT work and Dialog Telekom is to setup a call centre in future. If everything goes according to the plan 500 IT jobs and 250 call centre jobs are predicted.

Last year two students were trained for this purpose in Laos and India. Presently other students are being trained in Mahawilachchiya. More training is planned in John Keels, Colombo from this week.

This by no means is an easy task, however, judging from previous successes, I am confident that Wanni would be able to push this through.

Horizon never waited for government funding instead they lead the way. The Government should take a leaf from the experience and the leadership of this small community. Wanni still didn’t have a proper income and a place to live despite being dedicated to uplifting rural life for nine years.

Not only in Mahawilachchiya many dedicated people around the globe worked hundreds of hours voluntarily to see this success story coming to fruition. Contributions made by Horizon staff Deepal, Ranjith and Buddhika in the academic area is worth mentioning.

Buddhika’s story – I thought it is incomplete if I don’t make any mention about Buddhika. He stood behind Wanni in both good and bad times without compromising the loyalty and dedication. Buddhika hails from Mihinthale, family of four, a father with disability lessened the chance of a decent income from farming. Despite these hardships Buddhika volunteered to teach at Horizon. He travels from Mihinthale or from University of Peradeniya, Kandey to Horizon every weekend. He passed the Advanced Level with the best results from his public school and entered the University of Peradeniya. In few months’ time he will graduate as a young Electrical Engineer. Having realised Buddhika’s hardships, an expatriate from Canada contributed Rs15,000.00 to open a grocery shop. He guided Buddhika to mange it with his father and Buddhika followed the instructions to the dot. Many expatriates did not believe it will work. Start a grocery with such a small amount? Within the first 6 months of opening it had enough income to support the family. Today his father’s grocery is a thriving business and has transformed in to a mini wholesale distributor for the area. Budhika’s future direction finally depends on what he wants to do. However to recognise his dedication and contribution, expatriates have plans to help his future studies. I am confident that this young Electrical Engineer will stay with Horizon for many years to come.

If there is any one to replace Wanni to steer Horizon Lanka in the future, inarguably that is Buddhika. I think Wanni’s wish also is that and we all know Buddhika means business.

Horizon is unique; its success cannot be measured only by the number of children attending classes or from their high computer literacy levels. Many other developments happening around Horizon brought benefits to the people at large. It became a role model and a training center for many similar grassroots level initiatives. It gave confidence for people to take initiatives without waiting for government handouts and it set standards for the governments to do their work better to help people, not the middle man or officials. I personally don’t think that the government has learned the lesson yet, even though it is showing some interest.

Horizon is a role model for all expatriates who are willing to contribute to the development of the country. Expatriate contribution to this project is invaluable. However I must confess that the success is due to Wanni’s management, it was in cohesion with local conditions – without letting others to control the project. It is no secret that there were conflicts due to this, however, today we all can be proud of its achievements.

Future projects at Horizon, Mahawilachchiya.

There are many things that have not been implemented to its fullest extent. The E-farmers project and The Horizon Lanka Institute of Applied Arts and Technology are two such projects.

In the IT area, Wanni is planning to provide Wi-Max technology to Mahawilachchiya and set up a satellite TV relay station to broadcast edutainment content through VHF/UHF channels to village households and public schools; if he gets the official barriers cleared.

Krishanthi on her dad’s newspaper reading (Father is an Ethnic Tamil. How they live in Harmony)

There are many lessons for every one to learn through Horizon.

Our beloved country has many dedicated and honest people like Wanni who don’t take NO for an answer. What need is a proper policy frame work and elimination of bureaucracy.

Everyone who helped Horizon in numerous ways should be proud of the achievements of Wanni and Horizon Lanka.

If anyone wants to contribute to Horizon Lanka financially, they can do so via the online payment gateway it set up with Global Giving recently.

Sarath Kumara, Sydney, Australia