Monday, 3 December 2007

Is telecentre Break Even Point a myth..?


Well, that is a question raised by some members in the Ugabytes discussion group. There will be many more out there thinking the same.
In simple language – break even point is where the total revenue in an enterprise meets the total cost. But in application it is not that simple, especially for a socially driven, donor funded telecentre operation, who used to convince a donor to balance their short fall.
But the positive point is, that the sound champions are already there in the telecentre eco-system, who managed to define the less-defined ‘telecentre break even points’. I have met 3 convincing case studies so far;
1. Grameen CIC’s (Bangladesh); the franchise telecentres are expected to meet break even point in 12 months. The total establishment cost per telecentre is estimated to be 1000$US. Grameen offers marketable services such as Grameen Public phone connection, e-top up services (FlexiLoad) and EDGE mobile internet services (with a one year gestation period) for the telecentre operator to reach that economic goal.
2. Drishtee (India); have a systematically designed ‘Mission 6K’, that is to provide a marketable package of services to each telecentre, enabling monthly revenue of 6000Rs (Indian). Estimated break even point is 4500Rs, which is expected to reach in 6 months to 1 year period. Service package includes; mobile phone top up, insurance services, educational services, matrimonial services, online marketing of village products etc.
3. OneRoof (Mexico); franchise model offers 9 products and services to sell through telecentres to reach break even point in 6 months time (estimated). Clean water filters, Carrier counselling, solar panels etc. includes in addition to the traditional ICT based services.
These cases demonstrate the product and service models designed by telecentre network operations of scale, targeting individual telecentre sustainability. There must be other simpler versions adapted by individual operators, as the economically sound individual telecentre operations are already out there, though yet to be taken into this study.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Empty telecentres ..! Why..?


Telecentres full of computers – but without customers ..? A common question in many parts of the world.

‘Just provision of equipment and building the skills of telecentre operators alone would not solve the problem. It may require attention into broader socio-cultural aspects beyond technology, management and entrepreneurship’. That is the finding of an action research carried out in Sri Lanka, studying Socio-anthropological and Technological reasons behind lack of community participation at telecentres.

Research was carried out by Sarvodaya, together with University of Colombo School of Computing, Centre for Women’s Research, University of Peradeniya and D.Net (of Bangladesh).

The project had set up telecentres at the heart of 2 rural villages, provided the most up to date technology packages and tested community interactions.

Socio-anthropological reasons constraining participation:



  • Religion,

  • Cast

  • Ethnicity

  • Community leadership found as more intrinsically influential in addition to the Gender, Age, Occupation & Educational status.

For instance, locations such as Buddhist temple which were recognized as a place of common interest, in a predominantly Buddhist rural community, found to act as a barrier at the participation of women. In contrast, same telecente facility has become the reason for Muslim youth to visit a Buddhist temple for the first time in their life, fostering healthy ethnic relations.

Such findings provides new insights – that the challenge of filling the rural telecentres are beyond the management and entrepreneurship.

Citizen newspapers; another social enterprise model?


Imagine a villager visiting a telecentre to feed a local news clip to an e-Newspaper that circulates to 100,000 people a day, and get a payment for the news feed..! Well I have eye witnessed that was happening in Chile. In this case it was the telecentre operator (local girl) does the newsfeed.

‘Telecentro San Rafael’, small telecentre with 4 computers, located in a mix community of 6000 people, was run by a young girl. The place is busy with local children, youth and house wives seeking internet services, printing and photocopy services, generating about 270$ a month. During the free hours, telecentre operator feeds the news, that she gathers from the local area to the popular e-newspaper of the area – ‘El a Maule’ (http://www.elamaule.cl/ ). She earns a reasonable fee for her news.

‘El a Maule’ is one of the five well known e-Newspapers in Chile, focus into local news of Maule region of Chile. As per the latest statistics of Diarios Ciudadanos (the company who manage them), more than 100,000 page viewers per day read the news generated by over 2000 Citizen news correspondents, who feed the 70% of the overall content.

Diarios Ciudadanos introduced first Citizen e-Newspaper of Latin America in 2005. By now they run 5 e-Newspapers, and 2 more are scheduled to be launched in months. They partner with local institutions such as Maule Activa – the telecentre network operator, who runs 30 telecentres in Maule region. Telecentre operators were provided training to become local correspondents. For Maule Activa it serves two purposes; (a) an opportunity for the local community to bring their local voices (news) to the national attention, (b) an additional income to the telecentre operator.

Diarios Ciudadanos maintain high standards of news excellence. They never allow news about violence, celebrity gossip, obscene photographs or offensive material. Every news feed by the citizens filters through a network of editors.

Citizen participation is given the best opportunity. As per the Diarios Ciudadanos, journalism evolves into Citizen journalism in the era of network of networks. The rural telecentres are a part of that network eco-system.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Formula for Sustainable telecentre Social Enterprise





C + M + P = SSE

Where C stands for Active Community Involvement, M for Sound Management and P being relevant Partnerships. The result SSE is Successful Social Enterprise

This equation is not conclusive but the idea is that we have to bring everyone who matters onto the table and the key person here remains the community. They are the King. They know what they want and can even suggest the best way forward.

Community Involvement is vital since the community is involved through needs assessment, surveys, research, PRAs etc. The community is able to state what they need, and are also able to prioritize them. They can even spell out the resources that they already have within them while at the same time identifying other resources that can be easily reached.

Management of the telecentres is also crucial. Businesses thrive on the profit motive and as such they hire the best. Hiring the very best may be way out of the league of rural telecentres, but ensuring ethical and professional management practices is something that ought not be compromised.
Partners are also important. These may range from networks (that is if they qualify to be called thus), funders, research institutes, educational institutions, professional bodied, faith based organizations, government departments etc.

This equation is not conclusive but the idea is that we have to bring everyone who matters onto the table and the key person here remains the community. They are the King!

Damas Ogwe
Ugunja Community Resource Centre

(in UgaBYTES, Online Sustainability Discussion)


Add your comments>> to improve this formula.

‘Mission Drift’ in the Sustainability journey


A major question emerged in a very dynamic, online discussion facilitated by UgaBYTES with over 600 telecentre activists, mostly representing Africa.

'mission drift - mean the risk of de-prioritizing or abandoning their social mission to focus on income-generating activities'. - Loic Comolli, NESsT

Telecentres have the major mission to serve the communities, the Economic sustainability push them for another mission – that is to generate profits. There is a challenge that how to protect the primary mission (Social objective) while they engage into the secondary mission (economic objective).

There are diverse opinions about the mission drift. Some believe it is acceptable within the context of sustainability success.

‘I don't worry about mission drift if the organization is improving what they are doing and getting more profitable and more sustainable and the community is getting more service’ – Peter Burgess

‘I don't find mission drift as a serious problem (as far as it highlights the value of community /stakeholder participation’ – Grace Mirandilla (Philippines)

Yet, there is a common concern to avoid mission drift. Why?

‘In the Philippines: a telecentre was so successful at selling mobile airtime that it abandoned all other (community) activities and focused on mobile’ – Loic Comolli

‘In this context, the Philippine example found that a part of its business was very much in demand, and ran with it. The question then is what happened to these profits from the cellphone activity. If it is sent out of the country to Switzerland for safe keeping ... not so good. If it is used to help local orphan children or do education, well and good. – Peter Burgess

Well, such thinking leads to another question. Will channelling the profits into other purposes drift the progress of economic initiative..?

According to NESsT – Social Enterprise Capacity Building organization; there are two ways to prevent mission drift. The first one is to run social enterprises that are 'close' to the mission of the telecentre. If the products / services sold are closely aligned with the mission, then the risks of mission drift are low. However, sometimes this may not possible, as profitable products of such nature are not always easy to find.

A second way to prevent mission drift is proper ‘Preplanning’. Before starting asocial enterprise, it is important to know What are the objectives? Develop financial and social goals for social enterprise. Set revenue targets. Social goals should be the mission-related targets one seek to achieve through social enterprise. – Loic Comolli
The proper mechanisms need to be put in place to avoid mission drift. –Loic Comolli, Grace Mirrandilla

Cases in Point:

Drishtee of India and Sarvodaya of Sri Lanka >

At Sarvodaya - management happily allowed 'Mission Drift'. How? promoted telecentre operators to generate income. They did. But, instead of ploughing that revenue into a systematic network operation, it allowed to invest into their own (locally driven) social missions. (Result - after 3 years, network started to drift into economic failure).

At Drishtee – systematic protection from the 'Mission Drift'. The systems were in place to secure the 'Mission' - at every segment of the eco-system, both ways - Economic and Social. Result is very encouraging. Drishtee started with 3 telecentres and over 7 years, now expanded into over 1650 (all are decentralized locally owned operations). Every telecentre reach their break even in 6 months, and they serve the needs of local communities. Drishtee (network operator) - announced reaching their breakeven point after 5 years into operation.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Prepaid Valet - a new Telecentre business model


Prepaid valet is an equivalent to the prepaid mobile card model in telecentre eco-system. In the pre-paid card model, customer has to load an amount of money into a designated account in advance. Then variety of services will be bought to match the money value. When money depletes, the account will be toped up by the customer.

Prepaid Valet is the latest enterprise model introduced by Drishtee to their 1650 telecentre operators. Valet is a fixed amount of money (about 4000Rs) to be set aside by each telecentre. Drishtee offer pool of services / products to the teleceneter to match the value. Telecentre has to top-up the money when the amount depletes.

The services offered though this model includes insurance packages, education programs, mobile phone recharging, mobile phone selling, emergency light selling etc.

Though they introduced this model only about 10 months ago, already 1300 telecentres subscribe to the model. Drishtee support the telecentre operator to find money for prepaid valet by arranging bank loans, micro-finance etc. Furthermore, a centrally managed MIS (management Information System) monitors the operation of each telecentre vaulet. A call centre runs as a help desk to provide assistance for the telecentre operators, who need extra assistance for valet operation.

Average value of valet range between 3000 – 4000 Rs, but depending on the transaction volume, value can fluctuate.

This model provides a better financial leverage for Drishtee to organize bulk-service buying with larger vendors, thus enabling to offer services at telecentres at an affordable price. Further it builds up better-control at the telecentre operators at their financial handling.

Elements of telecentre Eco-system


When the attention on Sustainability builds up, the challenge grows up to draw the lines between the stakeholders within the telecentre eco-system. Because, so far the research engagement did not try to distinguish the sectors (stakeholders) constituting the telecentre eco-system, instead attempted to map the issues, constraints, champions, best practices etc looking at the broader picture (overall eco-system). But, as the study goes on, as multiple professionals tend to interact with the subject, naturally the demand rises to recognize the specific demands at each stakeholder level.
So the question no 1 (Q1): Who are the stakeholders?
> Telecentre operators (at grassroots level)
> Telecentre networks (networking 10s, 100s & 1000s of telecentres under one umbrella)
> Community (who interact with telecentres )
> Service providers (who provide services to the telecentres / networks)

Q2: Why are these stakeholders important?
These stakeholders collectively thread the overall eco-system. They are interdependent and complementary.

Q3: Should we consider them individually in the sustainability journey?
Probably yes, because, the demand at each stakeholder is different.
> expectations of sustainability
> perception into the sustainability
> capacity to contribute to the sustainability
> urge / readiness to engage with sustainability

Here is one example:

There are four contrasting stakeholders in the telecentre eco-system of Polithathya model of Bangladesh; Prawn Farmer, Mobile Lady, Telecentre Owner, Telecentre Network facilitator (D.Net).

Prawn farmer: looking forward to have the most appropriate treatment to his epidemic at farm, quickly and cheaply.

Mobile lady: seeking to continue her job, find more community members with questions, generate bit more revenue, find a better incentive.

Telecentre owner: struggle to maintain / upgrade computes, pay bills, enhance services, and find the breakeven point, if not a small profit.

Network facilitator: grapple with more complex issues, maintain a good floor of knowledge services / products, add more value, maintain a competent carder of human resources (very expensive), expand institutional status, and all these add more into the final budgetary demands.

Thus it may require different approaches to the same question of sustainability, differently at each layer of eco-system.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Mobile penetration at BoP – An opportunity for telecentres

According to a recent study, 41% of the bottom of the pyramid (BoP) in Sri Lanka owns a phone, and among these 22% owns a mobile phone. The growth of the mobile phone sector since 2001 is phenomenal: 22% in Sri Lanka, 76% in Thailand, 60% in Philippines, and 23% in Pakistan.

In Sri Lanka, BoP consumers alone represent four million people who live below 2$USD a day. Despite the cost burden, they choose to purchase mobile phones because of convenience and the lack of other communication options. Another 31% (1.3 million people) are planning to buy a mobile phone before June 2008, according to the study.

But 28% are not planning to buy. According to LirneAsia, the group who conducted the research, this is the community who offers the opportunities for telecenters. Why..? majority ( 86%) of this 1.2 million population live in rural villages (where telecentres are setup). Though they are not willing to buy phones, a communication is a need for them.

How the telecentres can take the advantage?
> Offer attractive and affordable phone services (especially international calls)
> Promote alternate modes of communications (eg. Internet affiliated communication services – VOIP) – (26% in Sri Lanka and 71% in India, of the BoP unheard about Internet).

Factors to be aware of;
> Majority of this group is females (61% in Sri Lanka, 64% in Pakistan, 53% in Philippines)
> 86% of this non-phone buying community of Sri Lanka will be rural. (92% in Thailand).
> Average monthly income of majority would be less than 75US$
> Mean age of this group would be 40yrs.
> Majority of them in Sri Lanka was sensitive to privacy of their phone communication.

Based on the presentation "Mobile Penetration in Sri Lanka, Implications for Telecenteres" by Prof Rohan Samarajiva of LirneAsia, at Sarvodaya's National Telecentre Alliance Conference, August 31, 2007.

Leader-centric networks, are they sustainable?



Most of the grassroots telecentre networks are leadership driven, according to my observations. In Sri Lanka, most of the successful Nanasala are driven by charismatic leaders. In India, Bangladesh and Chile, I have observed the same character though conditioned by the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the country. Originally, I thought it was my Sri Lankan (Sarvodaya-ness) culturally bound mind-frame created this insight. Yet, Maule Activa of Chile convinced me this character is common across the world.

What does that mean by Leadership driven / leader-centric-ness?

Leader has a vision and ambition. Vision builds the path, adjusting to the changing socio-economic and techno-cultural landscape. Ambition fuels the mission generating human and capital resources to translate that vision into action. Thus the telecentres / networks continue to survive.

These leaders maintain their circle of attention on;
> Maintaining a circle of influence with their target group (eg Community, Telecenter operators)
> Maintain visibility within their landscape
> Adapt strategic changes frequently (within Human & Financial resource base)
> Always in search for emerging opportunities

Still I could not find a logical reason to say they are not sustainable, as most of them run beyond the initial capital infusion (donor supported or slef-invested). But most of them do not demonstrate skills of articulating their success stories in the standard terms; balance books with consistent revenue, translating in-kind resources into economic terms, consistently generating convincing success stories in place of inspiring highlights.

Another quite common character to most of such leaders is, they fail to provide substantial revenue and welfare packages to their subordinates. That itself deprives their ability to infuse professional staff members, instead end up with constant struggle of keeping with, mostly, low quality staff.

But, as per the Peter Drucker, these leaders manage to get the best out of most human resources.

How genuine is the question...sustainability?


As I travel across the world – Asia, Africa, America, Europe – the common question raised – “Are the telecentres sustainable?”. It sounded, at times as a statement rather than a question..! I tried to analyse it, as it was quite intriguing. So following is my own self-questioning;

Who are the most common people raised this question?

Donors, consultants and policy makers!

What is their affiliation to telecentres?

There are two distinct types (a). Not deep in their experiences with telecenters, (b). closely affiliated with telecentre projects.

Why the group (b). ask this question?

>They are working in different thematic areas in the field of telecentres (eg. Project management, Monitoring and evaluations, content development, network facilitation, fund raising)
>They work often with NGO based telecenter networks. Most of these networks demonstrate the extra urge to ‘bend for money’ (fund raising vs capital-raising), which tend to dilute the feeling of economic sustainability.
> Not having seen systematic annual accounts, presenting internal revenue.
>They have never seen a convincing research study on the economic sustainability of telecentres / networks.

Are they really seeking an answer?

Not sure..!!!!

But the perception correction is very important.

Every thing under ‘One Roof’

They are unique because they offer very unfamiliar services from Telecentres; Solar panels, Clean water filters, HIV Counselling, Carrier counselling, Insurance and loan arrangements, all under one telecentre roof.

One Roof Inc. is a US based private company having subsidiaries in Chennai, India and Veracruz & Yucatana, Mexico. The company emerge as a ‘Social enterprise’, converting the experiences & credibility of community development organization – ‘World Corps’, founded in 1998. They had been engaged in youth entrepreneurship development and developing internet telecentres. Six World Corps staff members determined to invest private capital than philanthropic dollars to transform the non-profit World Corps to for-profit One Roof, since 2005.

As of now, there are 10 telecenters operational in India and another 9 in Mexico. They target to open about 3000 in India alone. One Roof offers a franchise model, encouraging the local investors to open up telecenters. Company provide brand name, MIS (Management Information System), capacity building and more importantly 9 marketable areas of services.

The niche area of One Roof is their ability to broker with enterprises who hardly considered telecentres as a potential outreach model. They had successfully engaged private companies to offer their products to the One Roof telecentres. For example, a Solar Panel system costs around US$30,000 in Mexico. Government has a grant scheme to support poor communities to install Solar panels, but the application procedures are too complicated. One Roof telecenters offer the ‘Grant application assistance’ to applicants. And they broker with private company to supply the Solar panels, to the successful applicants. One Roof telecentre charge a fee of US$20 - 40 for this service.

The business model seems to be working, as the services continue to offer in 19 telecentres opened so far in two countries. The telecentre model is expected to reach break even point in 6 months time. On the other hand, they believe these services are helpful to empower deprived communities, providing clean water, health, energy and educational services. Thus it is reckoned as a Social Enterprise.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Why it is not happening?

Again I have witnessed the same repetition at the eIndia2007 telecentre forum in August — the exact repetition year after at the same hall. Only the difference was, while majority continuously question about telecentre sustainability, some smiling faces (though very few) started demonstrating their models, which are heading in the direction of sustainability.

But the others were not convinced. Why? Because the question is so complex!

Following are some factors — reasons — that we have found in our research that contribute to this complexity. (The list is not exhaustive).

Social (ground/community level):

  • No economic motivation
  • Social ethos
  • Leadership deficiencies

Economic:

  • No market
  • No sufficient economic research data
  • No sufficient marketable services and products
  • No seed capital

Institutional:

  • No vision
  • Administrative or management deficiencies
  • No entrepreneurial skills and capacity
  • Institutional politics

Policy:

  • No conducive national policy environment
  • Existing legal systems not supportive

As we continue our research we will elaborate on these reasons. In the meantime, you are most welcome to add to, edit, or refine this list.

Mission 6K - Sustainability mission of Drishtee

They regard themselves as a Profit making company with a Social mission. The mega milestones they reached just over a 7 year period, convince that they deliver the talk.Drishtee started with just 3 kiosks in 2001. By 2007 they serves over 1650 Kiosks, all are operating in rural pockets, as franchises. The most impressive is their ability to reach financial milestones well before their intended time lines.'Mission - 6K' was the first milestone. Drishtee recognizing the importance of their kiosks operators sustainability as the top priority, they set the target by 2006 to reach every Drishtee Kiosk to earn minimum of 6000Rs (Indian), per month. This figure was recognized as the minimum financial gain to meet the kiosk sustainability. They reached the milestone 1 year in advance.This success channelled into Company's overall economic performances. Drishtee expected to reach the break even point by 2006, which they reached one year ahead once again.One uniqueness in Drishtee approach is their dedication to produce telecentre centric services. The broad array includes eGovernance, Matrimonial services, online marketting of village products, banking, insurance packages, mobile topup, health services etc. etc.This success written in the broad, dedicated approach they make to develop such products. Following is the chain of steps they meticulously follow before introducing a product:
Need assessment > demand assessment (how many people are going to use) > mapping of current alternative systems or existing systems > pilot testing > search for partners to expand > role out.Drishtee provide a lot of hopes into the Service dry telecentre landscape..! .....

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Bitterness of Failure

During the early age of Sustainability journey, in mid 2006, Fusion (http://www.fusion.lk/) started experimenting on BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) as a new product to introduce at telecentres.
The convincing factor was - had the BPO's being introduced at telecenters, it can bring dual benefits to the telecentres; a) it can be a micro-enterprise offered at telecentres to the local communities, b). telecentre operators can make substantial revenue by offering services as a middle man.
BPO being not familiar in Sri Lanka, this required a lot of experiments. To mitigate the risk Fusion partnered with a private sector partner (CSM Pvt Ltd. www.csmsrilanka.com), who had screened the BPO service providers and engaged with negotiations with them.
As a first step, Fusion had run a pilot test with 3 telecentres. Objectives of the pilot were;to recognize the feasibility of BPO operations at telecentres,to identify the business model.
First two months of the three month pilot generated very convincing results. With the help of CSM, Fusion could recognize the less sophisticated (low end) BPOs such as Web page translations, Excel sheet productions, Power Point productions etc. instead of more coplex BPO operations such as Call Centres, accounting systems.
More importantly telecentre operators had embraced the BPO as a feasible product to serve their revenue ambition.
Yet, the third month was a nightmare.
Telecentre operators suddenly realized, they were not receiving the regular responses that they used to get every morning from the BPO service provider.
Fusion management learned the on-line communication lines to BPO service provider, becoming increasingly inaccessible. CSM Pvt Ltd, (the middleman company), nevertheless convinced Fusion, they are attending to the operational problems.
Yet, in one morning, Fusion was shocked to learn from CSM, that the BPO Service Provider had disappeared into thin air.Whole Sri Lanka, was too late to realize the country had been cheated by a notorious BPO operator.
It was a very painful month for the telecentre operators as well as Fusion. Only the consolation was, CSM provided assurance, that they would find another BPO service provider to continue the journey. And Fusion is still waiting with hopes.
The positive side of the experiment was, Fusion learned BPOs are feasible. Yet need to be more cautious at establishing business relations.

Value addition of Entrepreneurial Capacity building

The word 'Capacity building' is no more exciting in the development sector. Common question - how are these capacity building workshops truly add the value?
A compelling story was found in Sri Lanka, with Sarvodaya/Fusion (www.fusion.lk). The value addition was done by another non-traditional partner; NESsT (Non-profit Enterprise and Self-sustainability Team: www.nesst.org). NESsT engagement with Fusion (facilitated by telecentre.org) was to support the telecentre family project (www.tcf.lk), which is a network of telecentre operators collaborated by Sarvodaya (NGO; www.sarvodaya.org) and ICTA (State institution; www.icta.lk).
How did they impact up on Sarvodaya telecentre network?By the time NESsT was landing in Sri Lanka, telecentre network of Sarvodaya - Fusion was undergoing a tough challenge - the common one to many networks; how to sustain their growing telecentre network, under ever increasing management cost (utility bills, maintenance, staff, etc.).?
Out of 31 telecentre in operation, Fusion was planning to close down 10 of them. But NESsT capacity building workshop shifted the decision 180degrees! Just after 6 months, Fusion set an ambitious target of 10mil Rs annual turn over.
What was the trick?
NESsT's capacity building workshop provided the missing ingredients to the already entrepreneurial Fusion team. They had been running telecentres as decentralized operations for nearly 10 years. But, not as a properly coordinated, business operation.
What were the key decisions?
  • a competent business manager was introduced to the central operation as an advisor (not as an overall manager)
  • participatory planning were carried out to study the feasible services / products
  • business plans were developed for each and every telecentre
  • financial targets were set against each telecentre
  • coordination systems were put in place to monitor the progress weekly basis
  • help desks were rejuvenated

The operational progress reached by the overall network for first two months of operation reported to be nearly 50% (against the set targets). But financial recovery is still less than 15%.

At this moment of time, they are attending to 'mid course corrections' to fine tune the lose elements of the operation (for eg quick attendance to computer breakdowns at telecentres).

Small presence of NESsT did a magic..!

Monday, 23 July 2007

ICT Courses - Consistent source of income

In many parts of the world, telecentre operators recognize ICT skill development as the default path to income generation. Yet, many telecentre activists argue against this choice.
Why..? One argument is - telecentres are opportunity windows to empower communities. ICT Skill development is a too narrow educational engagement. The other argument is that telecentres can become ICT training centres distracting from their main social purpose.
In a recent participatory workshop conducted by NESsT (http://www.nesst.com/) at Fusion (http://www.fusion.lk/) of Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka, 25 telecentre operators were tasked to list the potential income generation products for the telecentres to reach financial targets. The discussion lead to list over 20 potential products; which consisted knowledge products, telecentre based market research, Business Process Outsourcing, online marketing etc. At the end of the workshop, the short listing ended putting ICT Skill Development at the top (once again).
The reasons:
  • Consistent demand at the rural communities
  • Most of the telecentre operators are familiar with offering ICT courses (thus no need of additional capacity building)
  • No initial investment required
  • Required material (eg syllabuses) are easily accessible
  • Standardization institutes are available in the near rural settings
  • Required infrastructure facilities already available

Why not BPO (which had reached the second potential product in the list)..?

  • Telecentre operators are not familiar
  • Required lot of capacity building
  • Required capital investments
  • Absence of support services
  • No supportive infrastructure
  • Absence of enabling environment (legal setting, back up support services).

Enterprising or Socail Enterprising....which way to go..?

At telecentre forum of eGov - India, 2006, the auditorium was very electric when 'sustainability' was taken to the discussion.
'We should build Sustainable telecentres..!''
'Many of the telecentres would be closed down when the donors disappear..!'
....
'Well...! Social Enterprising is the only answer to Sustainability problem..!!'
I thought every body would jump into the idea when I threw this to the audience. Instead, all the eyes went deep and dump...as if I was talking a foreign language.
Richard Fuchs was right - 'Social Enterprising' is not familiar to the majority.
But. why 'Social Enterprising'..? 'Enterprising' - prepares you for money making; only aiming to build Profits, at whatever the cost to the community or environment. 'Social Enterprising' - teaches you to make money, while being responsible to your Social and Environmental concerns.
So - a 'Socially Entrepreneurial' telecentre operator, will make profits, while serving the best interests of Community, keeping the moral / ethical fibre intact.
An 'Entrepreneurial' telecentre operator might end up - converting his / her telecentre into a cybercafe...!!

Village dilemma at Social enterprising

I have seen this problem repeating many times in many parts of the world. And I have seen it again at Gampaha, a suburban village in Sri Lanka.

Economic sustainability needs the cultivation of entrepreneurial qualities. In simple terms - greed to make profits. For a Socially Driven community leader who thrive on altruistic motives - helping poor, offering volunteer spirit - this is an utterly bitter pill to swallow.
Mr. Wijewickrama (59yrs) who is a school teacher by profession, is the most respected leader in this village of 1400 families. His leadership lead the village from very humble footing in 1973 to one of the leading Sarvodaya (www.sarvodaya.org) affiliated villages by 2007.
Village Information Centre (VIC) is one of the many developments that he had facilitated. Villagers contributed their own savings to build up the Community Hall, which shelters the VIC, along with a village pre-school (serving 45 children) and a small library. By variety of community based fund raising activities, they could manage to buy 4 refurbished computers to scale up the VIC. Sarvodaya (Fusion) district staff agreed to provide the technical support for training.
Now they have all the required facilities, and over 25 students are seeking computer lessons, but they dont have a qualified technical assistant to provide training. Sarvodaya is keen to provide training. Yet they have an unresolved issue.
Issue is on the pricing for services..!
Village committee mainly influenced by the Mr. Wijewickrama’s leadership, is not ready to charge a fee more than 600Rs / month, (6US$). For Fusion, this is not feasible. The minimum feasible charge according to their calculation is 1600Rs/month.
It looks like - convincing the village leadership on the break even point analysis had become the biggest challenge for Sarvodaya - Fusion staff.
He listens when the Sarvodaya district staff explain the importance of keeping a sensible price.
‘At 600Rs. we cannot pay the utility bills, cannot replace the computers when they are old, cannot afford to pay the training assistant…..!..!’
Then he repeats the same question..!
‘This is a very poor village. Even paying 600Rs is not feasible for them. Their fathers and mothers contributed to put up this building and even to buy these computers. Now…why should they pay more to learn..?’
Social enterprising is not that simple..!

Corporate vs Grassroots ....Balancing Act

It is certainly challenging how to justify the corporate tactics in the social (development) landscape, when the scale of operation demands complex engagements (especially in the developing country context).
Grameen Phone (www.grameenphone.com) of Bangladesh, excited me too much recently when I saw their brand name parading from Dhaka Airport to the poorest villages all across the country....absolutely wonderful to see combination of Corporate engagement with Grassroots objectives.
Yet, when I go deep into the labyrinth of engagement....some questions kept coming out, indicating…how the politics and power battles of Grameen with Corporate partners (Telenoor ASA) created fractures in the community hearts....!
‘Telenoor is pumping millions of Taka out of our country. This is not fare…! We are a very poor country..!’
But there is another side to the story as I visited one of the Grameen CIC (telecenter) with one of the recently recruited graduates to the Grameen Phone.
‘It is certainly a dream coming true to join Grameen Phone. Well – this is the dream I had when I was in the university…!’
Almost every young graduate of the country dreams to join the company, while their poor mothers at the rural villages are being benefited....by the mobile phones to engage in micro-enterprises!
Leave alone complex stories, is it possible to replicate the Grameen - Telenoor model....in another country context....whether policy and economic structures are much tightly fabricated...........well...probably…only the future can answer.....!

Selling knowledge products

Selling information to the poor communities....!?! Well sounds impossible. But it is happening in the real world, with the mastery of D.Net (www.dnet-bangladesh.org) the Applied research based, development NGO of Bangladesh.
Pallithtaya kendra (telecentre) (http://www.pallitathya.org/), model of D.Net has so much to offer in the sustainability quest. They offer knowledge / information services, for a fee. Villagers visit these places to obtain agriculture, health and educational information which are made available in local (Bangala) language.
Taking Pallithtaya kendra as the ‘front end’, D.Net had invested substantial time and expert resources to build up a sound ‘back end’ support system which consist of a knowledge data base and professional help desk.JEEON-ikb (Information and Knowledge base: file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Harsha%20Liyanage/Application%20Data/Microsoft/Word/www.abolombon.org/jeeon) is the name of the database carrying over 30,000 local language web pages, covering 9 thematic areas which include Agriculture, Health, Education, Human Rights, Job bank etc. D.Net interacts with over 100 institutions to update the data base and expect about 10-20% of the annual operational budget to be generated by the sales of knowledge products.

D.Net’s patient invesements over decade long journey since 1996, proving to be paying off. In addition to the Pollithtya Kendras, they are entering to the income generation of scale. Grameen CIC (http://www.grameenphone.com/), the giant telecom company who sets up a large scale telecentre network (500 Grameen CICs – country wide), is considering to build business partnerships with D.Net. The goal of the D.Net is to trade Local language capability, Research know-how & local need based knowledge products, in there negotiation tables.

'Though we have come long way developing our niche capacity on information informediary services, we are not comfortable about our present scale of revenue generation' - Dr Ananya Reihan, founding Director of D.Net.
But immediate future seems to offer many prospects as telecentres are mushrooming all across the Bangladesh landscape.‘Our long term goal is to master BOI (Benefit on Investment) instead of ROI (Return on Investment), where we may capture profits from richer communities, to compensate the thin economic gains with poor segments’ – D.Net sounds very determined.

Mobile lady - Story of women empowerment

Mobile lady - is a popular figure in extreme rural communities of Bangladesh. People await to see her arrival to access very basic information - at times which not only decides the prices for their harvest, occasionally helps to find a medical help too. She is playing a vital role, as her visit to the village, help people to avoid days long journeys to the distant town ships to acquire the same information. As the name implies she peddles a bicycle while carrying a mobile phone, from village to village. And connect the village people with the Pallithtaya kendra (telecentre) (http://www.pallitathya.org), or D.Net help desk (www.dnet-bangladesh.org), for the required information services. She has a minimum task of connecting 75people / month with the help desk services, which she finds as an achievable target. And travels 5-7 km a day to reach this target.
‘I feel proud when I see people looking forward to see my arrival at many villages around my home town’ – those are her own words.

In a country where empowerment of women is a big challenge for the development workers, mobile lady concept made herself a proud woman. ICT in empowerment..!

Simple tools for income generation

Water testing kit is familiar subject in agricultural laboratories in many parts of the world. But in Bangladesh, it has become a popular equipment at rural telecentres. More interestingly, it is part of the tool kit carried by the mobile-lady (http://smilingharsha.blogspot.com/2007/07/mobile-lady-is-popular-figure-in.html) who peddles the bicycle from village to village, offering services while connecting communities to Pallithtaya kendra (telecentre) (http://www.pallitathya.org). Shrimp farmers require regular testing of water pH, which decide the healthy harvest of shrimp ponds at the end. In the absence of Mobile service, either farmers have to buy equipment (about 2500taka) or else travel long distances to get the same service.Upon request, mobile lady read the water pH meter measurement in a matter of minutes. Then she informs the meter reading to the help desk (maintained by D.Net; www.dnet-bangladesh.org) who provide additional information to the farmer, according to the pH meter reading. Soil pH testing is another service offered by the same mobile lady, to crop cultivators. In an average month she manages to carry out 6 - 8 testings, while 27 tests carried out in a recorded peak period of use.

Marketable telecentre products..!

Marketable products at Telecentres?
If the services / products offered at telecentres are not marketable, how do you expect to earn money?
The majority in the world provide Computer services, Photocopy, Printing, Photo-printing...and also telephone calls at very remote areas. But the list is quite narrow, unfortunately in majority places. Nevertheless, the happy news is there are places offer an exciting packages. Following is a list generated through research interviews:
Information: agricultural practices, public health and technology information, weather forecasts, travel schedules, government schemes. D.Net in Bangladesh already offers an example of a pay for use telecentre information service.
Employability: there are increasing examples of telecentres focusing on employability services, training people in specific skills needed to get a job and helping them with job seeking. As this has an economic benefit to the community members, they are willing to pay for this service.
Business process outsourcing: at least two initiatives have emerged so far with the intent of using telecentres as platforms for business process outsourcing. The telecentre provides local people with a place to earn an income and increase digital skills, and the local telecentre manager generates income either through access fees or a percentage of the money earned from the job.
eGovernance: this includes transactional services like land records, passport applications, government applications and submitting complaints to officials. These can become an economic driver for telecentres if proper revenue sharing arrangements can be made with governments.
Education: most telecentres already offer – and charge for – ICT skills training, which in turn generates demand for other services they offer. Some telecentres are moving into other education services including vocational skills and literacy.
Retailing: some telecentres in India and Latin America have proposed the idea of operating as retail outlets, either directly or by becoming an order point and shipping destination for ecommerce. Some of these proposals focus on socially beneficial products like environmentally friendly cooking stoves. Tarahaat in India sell energy saving bulbs, while they offer sewing machine training at Tarakendras (telecentres).
There are also a large number of purely economic services that telecentres can – and should – consider offering when the conditions are right. Entertainment is the most obvious example. Computer games, movie showings and digital photography all have significant revenue potential for telecentres. Also, basic access services like Voice-Over-Internet (VOIP) long distance calling and e-mail access for tourists in rural areas can be big revenue drivers. Services like these can be used to cross subsidize more socially oriented services.