Rural Knowledge Centers of Sri Lanka

Information Technology Penetration and the ICTA

Information technology penetration is rather low in Sri Lanka despite most of the population being able to read and write. The Information Communications Technology Agency or ICTA is trying to change this by helping rural communities adopt technology to improve their lives.

Taking the message out about how IT can help change their lives is not easy since people especially in rural areas are not used to working with computers.

Bandarawela town was in for a treat last week when a troop of street performers entertained crowds who had come to shop or were in transit to outlying areas. Curious people quickly gathered around. With the presidential election round the corner, some wondered if this was part of the campaign of a candidate.

Street dramas, like these, while providing entertainment are used to arouse social awareness. In countries like China, Russia and France street dramas were produced for political reasons too. But promoters of this act had other intentions.

Through comic dialogues and silly actions, the actors highlighted the benefits of information communication technology to the rural masses. This is part of government's e-Sri Lanka initiative to use Information Communications Technology to improve lives of people all over the country. The street dramas are the first step to introduce technology.

"We had to take eSri Lanka concept to the rural folk, and that should be understood by the target audience. It's the main idea behind the road show," says Brian Costello Peiris, Program Manager, ICTA.

"It had lot of entertainment value in it so that we can capture the audience. Mainly the road shows took place at crowd gathering areas like bus stand."

Although 93 percent of Sri Lankans are literate only a few know how to use a computer. At national level only around 10 percent of the population is computer literate.

A disproportionately higher number of those, around 15 percent, live in the urban western province. In more remote areas like the North-Central and Uva provinces ICT penetration is less than a third.

"We have 92%-93% normal literacy rate. But when it comes to ICT literacy we are in the lower quota for the region and that's the matter of concern amd motivation behind eSri Lanka," says Manju Hathotuwa, CEO, ICTA.

"We are pleased to say that when eSri Lanka began two years ago it was about 3.3%. And then the Department of Statistics did a survey during the latter part of last year and in a very short time -just over and year- ICT literacy is about 9.7%."

But IT literacy is low in villages like Koslanda in the Badulla district. Children are able to absorb new things faster and it's no different at Koslanda.

'Nanasalas' or IT kiosks set up by ICT Agency are scattered all over the country especially in rural areas. Children from villages nearby come to this 'Nanasala' to surf the web. If not for the Nanasala, these kids have to travel all the way to Bandarawela or Haputale to learn how to use a computer.

"Earlier we had to go to Bandarawela town to learn to use a computer. The payment is reasonable here and that is important because people in our village are poor. So everybody likes to come here to learn," says Nisansala Wickramasuriya, student. At Gleanore Estate, Haputale the street drama is in Tamil.

The drama team has adapted their piece to suit the audience while keeping the message intact. At Gleanore Estate, Haputale the street drama is in Tamil. They depict a conversation between a deity and ordinary people about ICT and how it can help their day to day life.

"The idea of a street drama came to mind because be unlike television, radio or newspapers through this we talk to the audience directly. This has a greater impact than any other medium," says Kalaichelvan a Copywriter at Minds FCB.

A Nanasala kiosk is also established in this estate. Earlier people visited the kiosks to make a phone call or fax a document. But now things have changed. Parents of children who frequent are delighted that their children can check exam results on the web.

"To get the exam results of the fifth grade we have to go to Haputale or Bandarawela. But now we can get the results directly through the internet. We can send e-mail," says M Mohan, Gleanore Tea estate.

Experts say ICT is crucial to achieve both community development and rural economic growth -an objective of the government's e-Sri Lanka initiative. But taking ICT to rural areas is not easy. Some areas still don't have basic infrastructure facilities like electricity and water. But experts say villagers in those areas have turned these limitations in to opportunities to be on par with other urban areas in the country at least with ICT.

"We are very involved in Mahawilachiya village to encourage some champions who saw that village -not as limitation with all its challenges-but saw it has an opportunity," says Manju Hathotuwa.

"Most part of the village doesn't have pipe-borne water. But it has probably the highest ICT literacy probably even higher than some towns. 50 families today have PC's at their homes but they have less than a dollar or two a day as family income."

"They have achieved that through number of very interesting ways. The government didn't intervene it was just enterprise and enthusiasm of the village itself. So you can see that despite challenges ICT still making a difference. Kids are now connected to the global world. They are even doing e- commerce and that's the brilliant thing about there even doing e-commerce and making more money than their farmer parents -selling web side to company overseas and many have bought these PCs through income like that."

-LBR Newsdesk: