May 19, 2005 Comments Off on e-Land

Colombo, Sri Lanka

This trip represented my second meeting with Sri Lanka’s Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA). I’d met the Agency’s energetic leader, Manju Hathotuwa in Ottawa about six weeks ago. Now it was time to meet the whole team.


As outlined in the presentation by program manager Reshan  Dewapura, ICTA and it’s e-Sri Lanka program, are tackling a set of challenges that other countries have taken a run at before – building a backbone that reaches small and isolated areas, developing demand and applications in these areas, e-enabling (and transforming) government. Which for them, is a good thing, as they seem pretty committed to learning from the mistakes of others.

You can certainly see this when you look at the design of their telecentre – or NanaSala – program. While it is barely out of the gate, it already builds in lessons from projects elsewhere. Many of the telecentres will be embedded within existing community organizations, like temples, schools and libraries (lesson: telecentres in existing community orgs usually survive). Others will be run by local entrepreneurs (lesson: you need to think about financial sustainability up front). At the core, the folks running these front line centres will be held up by ‘support organizations’ – essentially hubs that help the spokes (lesson: front line telecentres are more likely to succeed when backstopped by a hub or support network).


Of course, there are still lots of questions. Where is the local language content going to come from (beyond government services)? Can you really build demand for an entrepreneurial model from scratch in a place that’s never seen a computer before (some people have, others haven’t)? How well will the Nanasala’s connect into what’s happening with community telecentres run by groups like Sarvodaya? And, most importantly of all, does it look as neat on the ground as it does in a PowerPoint (it never does :-)).

Nobody has the answer to these questions right now. But Manju and his team have a strength that may well help them come up with the answers in the future – the willingness to launch early, listen hard and evolve. The NanaSala (formerly VGK) model had shifted a lot since I first heard it six weeks ago, partly as a result of conversations with outside folks. If they can keep evolving in this manner, it’s likely ICTA will come up with some good answers – whatever those answers happen to be.

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