Telecentre pioneers connect to compare notes
As hundreds of citizens around Sri Lanka help spread the benefits of modern technology to small communities, 20 of them find inspiration on a study tour to India
Two dozen Sri Lankan telecentre pioneers came away from a recent study tour to India inspired by the pivotal role women are playing in bridging the digital divide.
They were also impressed with mobile health services in rural India that rely on information and communication technologies (ICTs), and with a community-centred approach within the telecentre movement that puts grassroots needs first.
The first facility launched as part of a Sri Lankan government drive to extend the digital revolution to rural and semi-urban areas opened in a temple in Katharagama in the southern part of the island on January 1, 2005. The launch, planned long in advance, was able to proceed despite the Indian Ocean tsunami a few days earlier that had devastated coastal areas.
Since then, more than 500 telecentres have been set up under the “e-Sri Lanka initiative,” enabling villagers scattered around the country to receive computer training and browse the Internet, as well as print, fax, phone, and photocopy.
Sri Lanka hopes to have 1 000 of these nenasalas (“global knowledge centres”) up and running around the country by the end of 2008. The initiative forms part of a government effort to help communities tackle poverty, boost social and economic development, and build peace.
The nenasalas are run by individual villagers and religious or community groups. Prospective operators, who must be able to provide the space for a facility, are given training and all the necessary equipment, which is free of charge for two years. Most of the centres have two to four computers, a photocopy machine, printer, scanner, Web camera, and Internet access.
When the 500th such centre was opened in January 2008, President Mahinda Rajapakshe marked the occasion by announcing a commemorative postage stamp and a special study tour to India. Twenty nenasala operators, accompanied by four officials involved in the e-Sri Lanka initiative, were given the opportunity to visit telecentres in southern India and compare notes with counterparts there. Those selected for the trip run nenasalas in all corners of Sri Lanka, including the troubled northeast.
In February, the Sri Lankan delegation spent a week as guests of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and the Union Territory of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). Professor Swaminathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution in agriculture, has spearheaded a campaign in recent years to spread access to modern technology throughout rural India. A pilot project he led in the 1990s, supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, grew into a nationwide movement that has spawned tens of thousands of “village knowledge centres” around India.
The study tour was organized by the Sri Lankan government’s Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), MSSRF, and telecentre.org – an international network supported by IDRC, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and Microsoft that is committed to increasing the social and economic impact of telecentres.
Trip participant Harsha Wijayawardhana, Assistant Secretary in the Sri Lankan President’s Secretariat, was impressed with the community orientation of India's village knowledge centres. “They provide services beyond computer education,” he said. “For example, they offer market-related information, vocational training, health, fishery, and agriculture-related information."
Wijayawardhana plans to submit a trip report containing recommendations for Sri Lanka. “The participation of women is a must, and we will explore innovative ways to ensure women participate and avail themselves of the benefits of nenasalas," he said. "We will also make nenasalas people-centric, based on a bottom-up approach."
Basheerhamad Shadrach, a senior program officer with telecentre.org, said that although Sri Lanka is a late entrant to the global telecentre movement, the involvement of the President’s office shows the high-level commitment to the endeavour. The study tour gave the Sri Lankan visitors “a new insight into telecentres as a community development tool,” he added. “I could see their excitement and enthusiasm.”
Below, four nenasala operators share their thoughts at the end of the study tour.
IDRC Deepika Gurusinghe Arachchige
Sooriya Wewa, Southern Province
Deepika Gurusinghe Arachchige has two young daughters and a thriving, three-year-old business. She opened her nenasala on May 15, 2005, making ICT services available for the first time to the 15 000 residents of 22 villages. Inspired by the role models she met in India, she is eager to get more women involved in her nenasala. She wants to explore how ICTs might be used in agriculture, fisheries, and industry back home, and would like to see a mobile health facility in her area. She is also looking forward to hopping on her motorbike with her laptop to spread awareness among fellow villagers of what ICTs have to offer.
Rev. T. Nandasiri
Kirthi Sri Raja Maha Vihara, Sabaragamuwa Province
The Buddhist monk opened is nenasala inside a monastery in 2005. It also serves the wider community of about 5 000 people living in 15 villages. On days of worship, the telecentre attracts more than 150 visitors, 10 times the usual number. Rev. Nandasiri has given computer training to about 50 students, half of whom have secured jobs as a result. The visit to India has changed the way he will operate his nenasala, he says. Few women currently visit the facility because of its location, but he has decided to relocate it outside the monastery.
IDRC M. N. M. Rinoos
Jaya Nagar, Eastern Province
Engineering student M.N.M. Rinoos opened his nenasala in 2005. Still in his mid-20s, he has already led a successful computer-awareness campaign and introduced an e-learning program to eight schools. His telecentre serves 40 villages and attracts 20 to 25 visitors a day. In addition to browsing the Internet, villagers can receive computer training or get help with a job search. The study tour gave him some ideas on how villagers in Sri Lanka might use ICTs to access government services and markets for their products. He also thinks they could benefit from educational CDs he learned about in India.
telecentre.org IDRC Rev. M. Devasagayam
Bogawantala, Central Province
Rev. M. Devasagayam, pastor at St. Mary's Church in Bogawantala, runs a nenasala that serves 4 000 to 5 000 people, most of whom work on 10 large tea estates. The study tour impressed on him the importance of providing villagers with income-generating opportunities and useful information. With access to the Internet, farmers can improve agricultural and animal husbandry practices, and fishers can find reliable weather forecasts, for example. Rev. Devasagayam was excited by India’s mobile health services, and inspired by the people-centred (rather than technology-centred) approach of the village knowledge centres, and their evident empowerment of women.
This report is based on interviews conducted by IDRC's Prabha Sethuraman and telecentre.org's Vignesh Sornamohan, who is based at the Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies near New Delhi. IDRC