I just got back from observing extended focus groups on the knowledge and information gaps faced by small-scale rubber growers in the Galle and Monaragala districts of Sri Lanka. The locations were quite remote, if one checks the map of Badalkumbura (we were several km further to the interior). The remoteness is exemplified by the fact that it took me six hours of driving to get back to Colombo. It is too early to talk about the results of the focus group research, which will be released in due time.
What struck me was how Sri Lanka had changed in terms of telecom. When I was Director General of Telecom ten years ago, I used to go out into the rural areas (not as remote as this, but still remote) to talk to the people I served, in formal and informal settings. None of the people I spoke to had mobile phones; few to none had fixed. Suffice to say that even the Kandalama Heritance Hotel, one of Sri Lanka’s best, did not have a telecom connection back in 1998; they depended on a stray mobile signal that happened to reach them.
Ten years later, my phone told me that everywhere I went there was some signal (not all the networks were present; when I received a signal from the network I was subscribed to, it was not the most reliable in the remotest locations). But the point was that there was signal. Ten years ago, I used to lose signal 200 meters from town centers. More importantly, the EFG facilitator was able to frame questions premised on the general availability of mobile phones without being considered silly. In one location, where the participants had been transported to an accessible location, we found that 1-2 participants did not have phones, but that their family members did have phones. We knew that more than 75 percent of Sri Lankan households had some kind of electronic connectivity from our research but somehow, seeing it first hand was quite pleasing.