“I came more to learn from you; than to teach” was the message I passed before my two presentations with Sujata. Thanks Fusion/Telecentre.org for the opportunity. The three days spent with 200+ telecenter operators from eight provinces in Sri Lanka was a worthy investment. One does not interact with so many ground level ICT4D practitioners every day. It was a learning experience, for them; and for us.
From what I saw (and heard from others) the workshop, ‘weCAN: Social Enterprise with a Triple Bottom Line’ the second in the series of capacity building workshops of the Telecenter family of Sri Lanka was a grand success. Organized by Fusion/Telecentre.org (and funded by IDRC), we met at MIMT (MAS Institute of Management and Technology), Thulhiriya for four days (two batches). Plan was to amass 400 of telecenter operators from eight out of nine provinces of Sri Lanka but the recent floods in many parts of the island have stood in their way.
200+ participants was not bad. It was a mixed group gender and ethnically balanced. We had mainly ‘Nenasala’ and Sarvodaya multipurpose telecenter operators, but there were few odds too- like those who represented the telecenters at public libraries.
So what did I learn?
More will surely come when LIRNEasia survey results are analysed, but just Four Lessons, for the moment.
Lesson No. 1 (Good News!): GREAT THINGS HAPPEN AT GROUND LEVEL.
More than 50% of the crowd were newbies – either those who have started recently or who run more a ‘hand to mouth’ existence – but on the other hand, successful telecenter operators were not that rare a commodity, as many would think. I picked eight guys who are doing excellent. (Sadly no gender balance here, but things will surely change with many innovative ladies entering to telecenter space.)
Inter alia, we have heard the stories of Kathivan from Badulla whose telecenter earned LKR 300,000 (> USD 3,000) in one month; of U.M.G.Prasad from Sevanagala who uses Internet to link job seekers in his community with prospective employers (This clips tells more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqwU6k8Y35E); of Noel Tharmarathnam from Trocomalee who opens the doors of online IT exams to a post-conflict society (“I have to keep a low profile” he tells me over lunch, “…if I try to do too many things; I might not see tomorrow”); of Sanjeewa Kumarathunga from Nivithigala who told us about his efforts to help agriculture activities of the community and of Jayantha Wickramaratne from Panamura who runs a BPO operation. Congrats guys, and I hope the others have learnt from your experience.
Lesson No. 2 (Good News!): TELECENTER FAMILY OF SRI LANKA IS WELL CONNECTED THROUGH SOCIAL NETWORKING.
Try www.tcf.lk. Not everybody is there yet. Neither every member is a telecenter operator per se. (There are people like myself – who spend more time at our desks than at telecenters) Still, a good start. With this, Telecenter family becomes perhaps the first group in Sri Lanka to *officially* exploit the full features of Social Networking. Glad to see it happening in a place where many consider Social Networking is just for fun. I guess the credits go to Isura for creating this great platform.
Lesson No. 3 (Bad News!): NOT EVERYBODY IS CONNECTED.
This was a real eye opener. I thought Internet connectivity is central to telecenter operation. Without connectivity, a place with few computers does not become a ‘tele-center’. I was wrong. Some ‘telecenters’ in Sri Lanka have neither Internet nor e-mail. There are two groups – the recent additions who eagerly wait till ICTA responds to their numerous requests, and those who once had Internet facilities but now isolated because of an operator/technology transition. One can just forget it attributing to bureaucracy, poor planning and attitude problems. Can they too, who interact with communities on daily basis? What can a telecenter offer with no Internet? Are PCs only to learn inserting clipart on PowerPoint slides? I am not sure whether ICTA is aware that Internet is cut off from some telecenters for months. (Classic case was NINE months). Please do something, fast! Bits and Bytes are the food of net life and if deprived one can starve faster than we think.
Lesson No. 4 (Bad News): MOST TELECENTERS IN SRI LANKA RUN PIRATED PROPRIETARY SOFTWARE.
This is sad, but true. Out of 200+ operators none claimed using original versions or FOSS. With pirated versions no longer publicly sold on CDs (as a result of recent raids) a telecenter operator has to be innovative in finding solutions. I met few ‘gurus of pirated software’ who know A-Z from best download sites to cracking codes. Many think these as ‘originals’.
When asked when or whether ICTA intends to provide licensed versions of these to them, all what its representative has to say was (a) this was an issue from the beginning; (b) ICTA has no solution yet and (c) he needs to talks to his boss, who he thinks may have an answer. (I doubt!)
My question is why donors spend millions of Dollars on Free and Open Source Software if they are not used at ground level. As we say in Sinhala, use a sword has if not for war?
Enough for now. More later, with figures. Please watch his space.