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.