31 Jul 2009

E3 - 2: The formation of Telecenters Sustainability Networks

If sustainability gives a meaning of continuation of existence, it also gives a demanding target to exist forever. Which of course a question to me as our experiences are only 3-4 years; But there is a common consensus that sustainability is a result of continues evolution like evolution of mankind and science.

For Telecenters to sustain or to continue existance, they should continue to evolve in their communities, regions and nations as networks. As we have experienced, this process of evolution does not happen automatically like the human evolution was not automatic, in history many actors had made it happen. From Invention of the wheel to communication satellites evolution continued and will continue to future. Telecenters are also an invention, therefore needs to evolve to become sustainable and actors to make it happen.

The question is that "how do we facilitate this evolution?". Four years ago when we setup first VGKs, they were aimed to provide ICTs for the rural communities as a means to bridging digital divide. At the beginning Teaching MS Office was a cash cow. Access to internet was a luxury and mobile phones were a few. Now after four years so many people have learnt MS office, use mobile phones and use computers at home with broad band. The market is drying up for traditional ICTs and still there are poor people who are unable own ICTs. Unless Telecenters offer better courses and services, they are not able to make adequate revenue to pay their staff, pay utility bills and mange other expenses.
This means change. A change of Nenasala sustainability model and how they are to be supported ?, what norms to be made ? and plan for expected impact.
But how?

Before answering this titanic question, which of course has many answers, I think it’s better to understand little bit of background of Nenasala in local context.

In Sri Lanka ICTA under the president office lead the Telecenter establishment. The initial pilot was 20, and later planned to scale up to 200. The first 20 setup had much equipment and support. Then, ICTA reached 500 Telecenters by speeding up the process, The new model did cut down on equipment. In Uva province 28.3% Nenasala provided only two computers.

The first ones were provided with 4 PCs and newer ones given 3 PCs. Lack of photocopiers and multi media projectors were a major concern among operators. "If we have Multimedia projectors we can reach non ICT community like farmers and women" Mural Krishna a well sessoned Nenasala operator says. However general impression in Sri Lanka for Nenasala are improving now. People are begining to accept Nenasala exsistance as they are serving some of their needs. This increased distribution, reach and penetration of Nenasala into rural communities commended by Worldbank and greatly appreciated by community, and specially children benefitted impact in e education, Nenasala becoming a breeding ground for future professionals of our nation is becoming a reality.

Although 587 Nenasala were established, Some locations have no internet access. This may be due to informal processes influenced by different socio economic and political factors. During E3 the Uva Nenasala Internet access availbility grew from 40% to 79% which is much higher figure compared to other regions. However non of the Telecos were able to cover locations Balagolla, Anadaulpotha, Wekumbura like remote places who continue a good community service even without internet access.

The sustainability was never a question for Nenasala owners at the start as they got all equipment, internet access and technical services free from the state agency ICTA. Some argue we would have thought sustainability first, and some say the more distribution and numbers is much better. My point of view is that quality in establishment can achieve both as each motive has it’s pros and cons. However this is a tough ask in a country where development is mixed with political will, state beurocracy and local community needs. Nenasala have to satisfy all is a big ask.

Uva province 40% of Nenasala are setup on Temples, 20% are privately owned and rest are managed by CBOs and NGOs. One interesting finding is that It's the Most of the Temples based Nenasala are the leaders in the network achiving both financial profitability and social sustainability. The poorest ones are CBOs as well as large NGOs who lack focus on Nenasala. This actually influnce us to setup more Nenasala in Temples and break misbelief that large NGOs and CBOs are the best form of ownership.

The designers thought as rural communities lack access to ICTs, the demand for ICTs will be created to make Nenasala becoming self sustainable. This has become an illusion, as many Nenasala needing some sort of external support to continue. Eureka in Ethimale Nenasala says “We did a promotion, some people came initially and dropped, and now we wait , people are not coming” She and her friend open Nenasala situated in a corner of the village everyday and wait for a new customer to come in. They have a near by school with no computers but has over 400 students including secondary education students. They have never made a promotion in School or event didn’t talk to principal about it. Someone has to help them to make the bridge. That peice of support can change their form of sustainability.

As we studied, the support needs of Nenasala vary by type and scale in the areas of Technical support, training, financial assistance, internet access, content and services as well as mentoring. As an example a financially profitable Nenasala like Bibile, Haldummulla and Thanamalwila need assistance in business planning, obtaining a credit card, writing a project proposal, small loans and sometimes they just need someone to talk.

We can continue to argue why not all Telecenters establishments deliver expected results? But I think the learned lessons are more important to develop sustainability strategies. This requires inclusion of all key players and openness. As an example giving life back to VGK Focus Group (Now Nenasala) could be a good Start.

One major factor affected Nenasala was shrunk in local economy due to war recently ended. Lack of local content and lack of cash in their communities was also a problem. But some ask question how can people have no money if they have such a number of mobile phones. They say over 9 million phones in Sri Lanka. I think the growth of mobile phone is a talking lifestyle rather than a information need. I am not yet convinced that mobile phones are a threat to Telecenters.

Some Nenasala did well taking advantage of their location but many faced an issue of charging from their communities. Chief priest Kandewinna said “People know that, we get free services from the government and how can we charge people as a temple”. This is true in cultural aspect, but not logical in business aspect. We need to find a solution rather than pushing Kandewinna for getting money. One way is to make nenasala owned by community, who can invest in it. But this means sharing of ownership, which is still a question.

Another problem was local youth leaving village for popular jobs easily available in garment sector and Army. These jobs do not require ICT skills. Nenasala owners faced a problem to find volunteer operators. I mean people who work for free until some money is made and get a small portion of what they made. No one considered Nenasala Operation as a permanent employment. Some efforts to bring people from outside village did not work as they did not continue to come. Plan international assisted Therulla Nenasala finding a Teachers for the Nenasala, 40 students registered and dropped to 5 when class fees were demanded. The teacher stopped coming. Nenasala went back to still state.

This requires Nenasala movement to re-consider volunteer model and find ways to transform it to a volunteer but a professional development model. "Protect Nenasala operators to protect Nenasala" a blog wrote was well appreciated by Nenasala operators. Professional development of Nenasala operators is one major area we focused on E3. We have been able to keep many operators in the movement as we formed an community association for them and leadershio training helped them to hang on to the network built by E3 process. I can't imagine any process which can succeed, if it exclude simpact community at strategic decision making level. We need to make grass root empowerment a reality not an illusion for sustainability. E3 from day one, designed to empower grass roots, although it's tough task and a big ask to achive.

We found that every Nenasala focused on kids who loved to play with computers. But they did not make much income as the kids could not pay from their pocket. When I asked Dilhani, Balagolla Nenasala, Why they are making less revenue when 60+ students using Shilpa Sayura. She said “There is a monthly payment of Rs 100/=, but when we ask for it. They stopped coming, therefore we don’t press for payments”. When we deployed Shilpa Sayura which made their users grew in numbers, yet less revenue as the village is a corn growing poverty pocket which is one of the poorest AGA divisions in Sri Lanka. My friend Nuwan in Bibile Nenasala, may not agree on the principals of democracy, But we need a special package for sustainability of these Nenasala who help make social change in a location we need to change.

Among 60 Nenasala researched for an Year, we learned many stories what impact Telecenters sustainability. Location of Telecenter is a great impact on financial profitability, how ever social impact depended on certain factors which sometimes lapsed in financially successful Telecenters. I remember my ICT4D friend Rajiv Ranjan who is gone missing in somewhere in Africa, once said at e Society focus group that “If state money is spent on Nenasala, They should focus on social impact rather than business”. I bring out this little stories to suggest that Sustainability is an evolution and it has several forms and faces which we have to unleash by more research and development. E3 is just that.

Some people suggest that It's hard for Telecenters to achive social impact and financial profitability. I agree that It is a challenge but believe it can be done, proved with examples of Talakumbura, Mahiyangana, Girandurukotte, Siyambalanduwa Nenasaala which were closed when E3 first moved into Uva province, after an year they have become Network Leaders. Each one is distinct by location, community and culture. What made them become excellent Nenasala and Network contributors is a real area for research. To start with it's a result of e-leadership development. I got the idea of e-leadership from Dr. Naggy Henna, but focus was changed to make leaders at the bottom of the pyramid.

In Uva Nenasala Network, majority of Nenasala who sustained, did well in the social context first. Actually, I didn’t know anyone with a business plan when started E3. Talakumbura Nenasala serving over 100 children and charged no fee, sustained. Balagolla, Kandewinna and Wekumbura Nenasala continued to exist even without internet, less than Rs 3000/= revenue using volunteer services. Thanamalwila Nenasala ICT scholarship program for poor children, Hingurukaduwa e village innovation, Siyambalanduwa teaching English on Skype, Heeloya providing better seeds for farmers, Mahiyangana developing school drop offs are finest examples of social sustainability. E3 would like to study each of these cases in deep for higher learning of Telecenter sustainability.

RIT assignment we were involved in was one of the key strategies of ICTA to improve Nenasala Sustainability. It had a clear goal what the assignment was to achieve. The ICTA RFP said “Nenasala would be able to generate sufficient revenue to ensure its sustainability in the long term". Is a clear statement of state policy on Nenasala sustainability which is looked at a long term impact. Our mission was to create a foundation within assignment period for ensuraing long term Nenasala sustainability, in which we believed that ideas for a foundation for long term sustainability doesn’t come from sky. It has to evolve from the impact community on a collaborative vision. This is where building human networks became most important. As a techie, I have build networks that flow information and communication needed for business, but human networks to sustain Telecenters was a new challenge. E3 found a solution to build human networks among Telecenters, which will serve as the sustainability network for Nenasala.
E3 was the process of building this foundation was layed not actually by us, but Telecenter Operators trained and empowered through


Read how we did it from my next blog in the E3 series.

Niranjan Meegammana

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