ICTs and Economic Empowerment

posted in Note by Producer

ICTs and Economic Empowerment

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Weerakodiyana village, Udabaddawa, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Constantly pulling out our phone to check-in on Foursquare or flipping open our tab to send that urgent email, we sometimes forget that it is not just the urbanised ‘city folk’ that are finding mobile technologies transformative in their lives. This feature takes a look at how different types of mobile devices – from basic phones to Android tabs – are being used by different groups of people across Sri Lanka for new and meaningful purposes that would have been unheard of thirty years ago. Farmers in the middle of a muddy field checking their phones for prices of potatoes? Six year old kids in a remote village flipping through an app on a tab and learning English? A small retailer whose business has tripled because he is the ‘go to guy’ for mobile phone services in the area? A boy who makes sure a bus to the East is never empty because of tickets sold over the phone? This feature, with pictures from ten localities in three districts, demonstrates the power of mobile technology and the potential it holds for the future of economic empowerment in Sri Lanka.

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Weerakodiyana village, Udabaddawa, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

It’s a Saturday morning and in a small hut at a temple in the Weerakodiyana village in the interiors of the Kurunegala district, children have been in and out from 7.30am attending English classes. The English programme has been happening in their area for a few years and, since three months ago class attendance has risen and the enthusiasm with which children attend the classes has noticeably increased. The reason for this change is because three months ago, through the ‘Android Village’ initiative, Sarvodaya Fusion and the mobile telco Etisalat, gave local Android-powered tablets to teachers to use as a teaching aid in their classes. In the elementary class pictured here, about 30 children were in attendance and excitedly spelling three letter English words using an app on the tablet. For approximately 75% of the students, this is their first exposure to mobile technology. The English lessons follow a syllabus that is different to the regimented one that is taught in schools and have four levels – elementary, intermediate, foundation and advanced. Each teacher, like Gaya Niranji at this centre, gets to use a tab for two weeks and takes it to all her classes across these levels during those two weeks, after which he or she hands it over to the next teacher.

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Dummalasooriya Distance Learning Centre, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Teachers like Nadeeka at this Distance Learning Centre close to Kuliyapitiya say that the mobile tablet has been a useful tool for them to better engage with the students, and even more useful in convincing the parents about the importance of their children attending the English classes. Students pay a monthly class fee of Rs 250 and parents are thus far happy to make that payment. Nadeeka said she has observed the change in student’s aspirations after being exposed to technology and the internet – they have begun to realise that there are more career options available other than the ‘doctor’, ‘teacher’, ‘engineer’ choices they would usually gravitate towards. The teachers have also noticed that there is also an improvement in their performance in other subjects at school. The skills gained from using these tablets for learning seem to have given them more confidence and in approaching learning differently.

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Dummalasooriya Distance Learning Centre, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

When IT education in rural areas started some years ago through the Nenasala initiative, one gap that was noticed was the lack of English knowledge and it was seriously hampering the uptake of IT education. Sarvodaya Fusion started an English programme to address this. Students receive a free booklet every month containing exercises and assignments with localised content which students can easily relate to. But, the mobile material hasn’t caught up yet. The applications are based on content developed abroad, so for students not familiar with foreign accents on the app’s voice and to names like ‘Roger’ and ‘Sue’ it seemed difficult to comprehend. As in the monthly booklet, developing localised content will be key. Meanwhile, the classes are relatively big and so each student does not have too much time with the tablet and the teachers also don’t have time to explain individually what errors they made – for example with these kids who are taking turns to use a ‘fill in the blanks’ application on the tablet to learn grammar.

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Madawa, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Thilini has dreams beyond her village in Madawa, about 18 km from Kurunegala. She browses the CA Sri Lanka website for latest updates on the Chartered Accountancy course she is following. Thilini’s family is part of the ‘Android Village’ initiative of Sarvodaya Fusion and Etisalat where families are given an Android tablet to use for two weeks in rotation, with the objective of taking new technology to the village. For most families taking part in this initiative, this is the first time seeing a tablet. Indeed this is the first time Thilini’s family has had internet access right in their home. Usage is free for the families who are participating in the project and each family is given a usage cap of 500MB for the two weeks. Thilini is getting the rest of her family on board too. Her father is a carpenter and she has taught him to use the tablet to look for new window frame and furniture designs online. Her mother likes to use the tablet to check the prices of vegetables (she has a small vegetable plot in her back garden where she grows for sale) and to also read the news. Her younger sister has mainly been using it for homework – the dictionary app is what she is using the most. Meanwhile, Thilini has been using the tablet to search online for job postings in the banking sector and even applying straight away using the online forms.

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Tharathota, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Lakshan is sitting for his Advanced Level exams at the moment and the tablet his family has been given for two weeks has been really useful in accessing science practical demos online. Unfortunately the poor connectivity in the area his home is situated in has meant that he cannot use the tablet as much as he would like to. This is not his first time accessing the internet though – Gayan said he accesses the web on his phone and from a desktop at home. All the tablets are connected by Etisalat and in some areas they only get 2G coverage and not 3G. Even though his parents have not learnt to use the tablet, he checks the weather app for his father who needs to know about the weather regularly before putting the seed paddy out to dry in time for a sale. The interest in using tablets is gaining ground in these villages. At the end of two weeks period, when the Sarvodaya Fusion coordinators recollect the tablets, many families want to purchase it or ask whether Sarvodaya has stock they can sell. An interesting feature of the project is that it doesn’t impose on the family what the tab should be used for, but rather lets the household’s members figure out what is most useful for them. Of course, there would be vital download data on each tab that the project’s implementers can use to analyse its usage.

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Dambulla, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Being cheated by the middle man is a perennial problem faced by the Sri Lankan farmer. Farmers, who have less information than the ‘mudalali’ or middleman, often never know if they are getting the best price for their produce. A few years ago, a mobile phone initiative called Govi Gnana Seva identified this and developed a way to collate the prices of vegetables at the Dambulla market and send them via SMS to the mobile phones of farmers in the area. Hundreds of farmers in and around Dambulla would get updates multiple times a day about the prices of vegetables. Farmers in Dambulla are using the service less than they used to – not because they don’t find the technology and the service useful, but because of changes in what they grow. Unlike earlier, where they grew a range of different vegetables, farmers in the Dambulla now focus specifically on a smaller range – onions, cabbage and sweet potato. Competition is fierce, they say, after the agricultural lift-off in the Northern and Eastern provinces and more produce coming on to the mainstream markets.

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Dambulla, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Amidst the mud on their feet and dirt on their hands, this young farmer checks the prices of sweet potato on his mobile, after a tiring morning of uprooting the potatoes and bagging them. Particularly among the new generation of farmers, mobile phones are becoming increasingly popular to check market prices and coordinate sales to wholesalers at the Dambulla Economic Centre. Farmers can call 977 and get the current price or they can register for the SMS service where they select the vegetables they want daily prices for. Once registered, a farmer receives around five alerts a day for each selected vegetable. Many farmers cited an example from last year where on one day the price of cabbage had increased considerably between morning and the evening and thanks to the regular mobile phone price updates they were able to rush to the fields, cut the cabbage and take it to the market as soon as they came to know of the high price.

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Dambulla, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Mr. Dasanayake, President of the local Kalogahaala Farmer’s Society, was one of the early adopters of the Govi Gnana Seva service. During the time that Dambulla farmers grew many types of vegetables, every single farmer in his Farmer’s Society, around 80 of them, were registered for the SMS service. But he says that the mobile agri-price service is less useful for people like him who are farming in Dambulla and can easily physically check the prices at the Dambulla Economic Centre. Rather, he said it will be most useful to those farmers who are much farther away – in neighbouring prime agricultural regions like Jaffna, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura – who find it much harder to find out the real prices. Dasanayake also felt that not enough people know about the service and a lot of awareness would need to be created to get more farmers from across the country on board. The more farmers in the network, the infinitely more useful the service becomes.

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Dambulla Economic Centre, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

The Govi Gnana Seva has now been adopted by Dialog Axiata and is offered through its ‘TradeNet’ service. A team based at each of the Economic Centres around the country updates the prices for all vegetables throughout the day. Lead operators like Gayan Madushanka checks prices every 15 minutes from different shops at the Centre (chosen at random) and uploads this data on to the TradeNet platform via his mobile phone. This goes to a server at Dialog and is subsequently sent via SMS to the registered farmers. About 300 updates are sent daily with real time prices. In the meantime, duplicate services have recently popped up. Mobitel has started its own similar service, via ‘6666’, albeit at a more basic level, with the Hector Kobbekaduwa Institute (HARTI). Mobitel’s updates are not real time and are an average daily price, which can be both misleading and less useful. Duplication of these services will only confuse farmers and reduce the overall spread and depth of impact the service can have. Recently, the Ministry of Cooperatives and Internal Trade too have also launched their own service via ‘1977’. Interestingly, 1977 was the year in which Sri Lanka liberalized its economy overnight, and the sector said to have been initially hit the most (by imports) was domestic agriculture.

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Colombo, August 2013. Photograph by Shafraz Farook

A few meters off the corner of the Maradana Technical Junction, a small shop front comes alive around 6 o’clock in the evening. People in their twos and threes swing by with hits of paper and shout out numbers, mobile phones rings every few minutes and frantic scribbles are made on pieces of paper. It builds up to a frenzy between 8 and 9 o’clock, with calls being made, shouting out directions, checking on people whereabouts and then, nothing. In just the last few minutes before this quiet, at least five busses carrying an average of 40 passengers each had begun their journey to the East coast of Sri Lanka. Getting a seat on a bus to the East is a matter of either getting to the Technical Junction personally or knowing any one of the many mobile phone numbers that are dedicated to taking bookings. Ramesh, after a series of odd jobs, has been taking bookings for the East-bound buses for over three years now as an employee of the S S Bus Booking Center, a small shop front no bigger than a cubicle in a small office. On average, the booking centre has 40 seats on about five of the estimated 25 busses plying the route to the east to Kalmunai via Ampara or Batticaloa. Of the 40 seats, Ramesh says at least half of it is made over the phone by regular commuters to the East, including many professionals like doctors, engineers and charity workers. The transactions are on the spot, tickets are paid for by the commuters and after a commission, the buses are paid.

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Mattakkuliya, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

If you are ever in Colombo 15 and are running low on mobile phone credit, Surendran is the man to meet. From reloads to new SIMS, his shop – St Mary’s Communication – located opposite the Saint Mary’s Church in Mattakkuliya is a veritable one-stop-shop for the communications needs of the surrounding area. Since he started this business in 1997, Surendran has seen his business triple because of mobile technology. Earlier he ran a basic operation which offered agency postal services and other services like photocopying and phone calls from a typical phone booth. Over the last five years or so, these businesses are not his priority. His priority now is catering to the continuous footfall of customers that come to him to get quick credit top-ups. The margins, he said, are better than any other service he offers, and the hallmark of his success has been ‘pleasing the customer’. Even when someone doesn’t have enough to pay for a reload, Surendran does it anyway. He’s built a loyal clientele, and has been rewarded with ‘5 Star Partner’ status from Dialog. Surendran points behind the shop and says that without the good margins and regular turnover that he has with the mobile reload, top-up cards, and SIM cards business, he wouldn’t have been able to build the home that he lives in now, with his wife and three kids. He has over 100 customers coming in daily, and of them over 75% come for mobile related purchases. His next venture, he said, is to convert the old phone booths into display cases and be the leading retailer of affordable mobile phones from the people of Colombo 15.

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