Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Subsidy Vouchers; a unique model to catalyze rural poor

How to attract the rural computer-illiterate to telecentres (branded as Nanasala) has been a serious question for ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA), when they start setting up hundreds of telecentres across the rural landscape.
‘Subsidy Voucher’ has been a unique concept they have formulated together with expert contributions of Sarvodaya (building upon the ideas of Public Interest Program Unit of the Gvt). Pilot tests were carried out in three telecentres as early as 2004. Since 2005 June, gradually it has been adapted as a national role out in 100 selected telecentres across 13 districts of the country.

Concept: subsidy vouchers are distributed among the specific target community, after systematic local promotions. Recipients are eligible to access designated services, for a fix time period. The value for the service has been reimbursed by the ICTA to the telecentre. Each telecentre is given the maximum monthly quota of 25,000Rs. (250$US) worth vouchers.

Target communities were recognized strategically so that the critical mass of telecentre users would be developed around the telecentre over the life cycle of the voucher program. Accordingly, the two specific communities were targeted; school children and unemployed youth & adults (women, farmers etc.).

By design, two voucher types, namely Specific Service Voucher (SPV) and All Purpose Voucher (APV) categorically targets these two communities. Accordingly, types of services and the amount of the hours are defined. For instance SPV enables Computer access for a lengthy period of time, where as APV provide internet, phone and photocopy services for a shorter period.

Though the pilot Voucher version was developed aiming a paper based distribution system, the implementing organizing (Prizewaterhouse Coopers Ltd) had subsequently improved the model into an electronic version. Thus telecentre operators manage the whole voucher program on an online platform, enabling efficient tracking of thousands of vouchers being distributed over 13 districts.

Success story:

After 3 yrs into the operation, 80 out of 100 telecentres adapt the program earnestly. And they use full amount of monthly quota. That has provided them a steady start up income to build up their business model. Nevertheless, 20% could not utilize it to the full capacity. (Common complain was, keeping the record books of overall voucher operation).

Three telecentres located in very rural areas of Sri Lanka (Nivitigala, Udawalawa & Kosgala) were taken to a close study, in Feb 2008.
• In all three instances, Vouchers provided a unique opportunity for the very poor students to receive basic computer education.
• Three telecentres utilized vouchers as different start up models. 1). Using vouchers to target unaffordable communities to interact with on-going ICT courses, 2). Build up their overall telecentre clientele, 3). As an additional revenue to boost their on-going business operations.
• Among two vouchers, APV found to be more effective to generate a new pay-for-service clientele to the telecentres. SPV was powerful to build up the community ICT skills (but most of the students cannot afford to pay the fees to return to telecentres despite their willingness).

ICTA yet to be carried out a systematic evaluation on the program, though they recognize that the program is making a healthy progress. And they plan to expand it to all the telecentres.