Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dialog tradenet - Agricultural Commodity Prices via Mobile Phones

Minister of Trade, Marketing Development, Cooperatives and Consumer Affairs, Bandula Gunawardena, is addressing gathering at the launch on 22nd December 2009.

Dialog Telekom, a telecommunication company, together with Farmer Intelligence Services [Govi Gnana Seva (GGS)] has launched a service to deliver spot and forward agricultural commodity price information via mobile phones.

Dialog tradenet is a project initiated by the Dialog’s ICT4D team to go beyond the conventional entertainment focused Value Added Services and make a meaningful relevance of ICT to the all the segments of the society, especially to the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP). So everyone will be able to reap the dividends of ICT for their own socio-economic development.

Initially this will provide agri-produce price information from three Dedicated Economic Centres in Sri Lanka (Dambulla, Meegoda and Narahenpita). The scope of tradenet will be gradually expanded to industrial and service sectors also. GGS, as an organisation with the expertise on agriculture markets has joined with a technology expert, Dialog to make this initiative a success, by making it a win-win-win solution for all, including the poor farmers.

Among many other unique features, the usage of multiple channels/technologies to reach the end-users has made the system Affordable, Available and Accessible to the all the levels of the society including the BoP.

Call Centre : 977 (in local languages)
SMS : (in local languages)
Web : (in local languages)
USSD : #977#

Moving farmers from subsistence agriculture to some level of agri-business will help them to come out of poverty. But for those poor farmers to actively participate in agri-business we have to create efficient agricultural markets with minimum information asymmetry.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mobile Phones for Teaching and Learning Science

To learn about the diversity of leaves students have to pluck the leaves thus damaging the plants. A more interesting approach is where students collectively took photographs of leaves while observing them.

Currently mobile phones are banned in Sri Lankan schools. But recently a research study on effectiveness of mobile phone for teaching and learning science was carried out in central province of Sri Lanka by a PhD student together with Department of Education of the University of Peradeniya in collaboration with the University of Bristol, UK. Dialog Telekom (a telecommunication company in Sri Lanka) supported this initiative by means of providing technical expertise and other resources.

How will students use mobile phones if it is already banned in Sri Lankan Schools?

In this study it was emphasized that a mobile phone can be just used as another science laboratory equipment such as a test-tube or a microscope. That would minimize the disciplinary and other related problems which caused to ban the mobile phones in Sri Lankan schools.

Mobile phones are getting equipped with more advanced tools such as video cameras, audio/video players, etc. Also the handset prices are coming down day-by-day. So it is up to the users to use those for more productive purposes than destructive uses. I think teachers can educate pupils on how best they can use mobile technology even fulfilling basic human needs such as education rather than saying "no" to the new technology or trying to keep children away from the new technology.

Courtesy: Sakunthala Ekanayake

You can read more about the research study here.


Friday, October 9, 2009

World’s First Wind Up Mobile Phone

This will not be exciting news for Sri Lanka as it is a country which has nearly 80% of the households with access to the main electricity grid. But this would be very good news for other countries with poor electricity penetration in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Currently the above phone which is called “Ventus”, is in the prototype stage of development.

As per the TCL (, the company behind the development of this product, after cranking the phone for a minute, one can get four times that in talk time and it’s powered by a specially developed ultra thin dynamo.

Another interesting feature is that it also has solar panels incorporated into it so if you leave it in the sun it can be left on standby for extended periods of time.

Company has not revealed how near they are going to release it as a commercial product. But hope that would be a great news for people who walks miles to get their phones charged.



Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stop Positioning Mobile Phone as a Mere Tool for Entertainment and KIT

A recent TV commercial in Sri Lanka shows a girl gets a SMS to her phone and says;
“My boyfriend is sending me SMSs too, even after being on phone with me for hours”
The message from boyfriend: “you are beautiful”
She replies: “you are smart”

Most of the mobile operators in Sri Lanka try to position the mobile phone as a mere tool for Entertainment and Keep In Touch (KIT). They mainly target youth for their marketing campaigns.
This has led to various confusions and disadvantages for both mobile subscribers as well as mobile companies. A negative sentiment has been developed among the people and most of the people, mainly the people at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) do not believe that mobile phone has a positive impact on their lives or livelihoods.

The impact of direct access to telecom on the ability to earn more using the phone or save a certain expense that would have been incurred without the phone (mean response) - LIRNEasia Survey

The wrong positioning of mobile phone in Sri Lanka has led to even worst policy decisions such as Government of Sri Lanka banning mobile phones in schools
So, it is a need of the hour to understand the potential of the mobile phone in Development and position it at the right place. Also it is the time to introduce more and more Value Added Services which goes beyond the entertainment.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Sri Lanka Bans Mobile Phones At Schools

There are around 11 million mobile subscribers in Sri Lanka and the mobile penetration seems to be very high. It is not a surprise if this number reaches 20 million in another few years time.

In this context mobile phone would be one of the best information delivery mechanism when compared with other electronic media. So it has immense potential of delivering contents on agriculture, health, education, etc.

But this tool has been banned at Schools, why?

This sophisticated tool can be a tool of distraction in the schools. That is why it is already banned in other countries such as South Korea, UK, Philippines and France. This is very similar to what happened in Ethiopia, their Ministry of Education kicked of the OLPC from schools.

Any technology can be used for good or bad purposes/ constructive or destructive purposes. It depend on who use it and what purpose it being used. Best example is the computer, can be used to kill people as well as it can be used to save thousands of lives.

So what should we do? Say “NO” to the technology or teach the younger generation how to use it effectively.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Nenasa TV – 1000 Schools to be Connected to Sri Lanka’s first Satellite Television Education Bridge

H.E. the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launched ’Nenasa’ - a Digital Satellite Television based Distance Education Bridge, managed and operated by the MoE and the National Institute of Education (NIE). ’Nenasa’ will connect 1,000 rural schools in Sri Lanka to high-quality rendition of the national curriculum, developed by the NIE over a digital satellite television broadcast medium.

This is another joint initiative of Dialog Telekom under the theme of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). This would deliver rural children the quality education and would minimize the Digital Divide in Sri Lanka.

NenasaTV is a gift to the Ministry of Education and Sri Lanka’s student population from Dialog Telekom PLC. The project has been funded by Dialog Telekom as a part of its Corporate Responsibility programme under the theme of ICT4D.

Addressing the gathering, H. E. the President, said: “Our Government is making every effort to harness the potential of rural Sri Lanka, with special emphasis on enhancing educational facilities in remote regions including the newly-liberated areas in the North and East".

The NIE will develop contents for ‘Nenasa’, which in turn will be broadcast by Dialog to all 1,000 schools. ‘Nenasa’ will be dedicated towards broadcasting educational content and cater to the Ordinary Level and Advanced Level syllabus in Sinhala and Tamil. In addition, teacher-training and skills development would also be included in the programme line-up. These lessons will be supplemented by a Learning Management System (LMS)


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

ICT for Agriculture in Sri Lanka

The agriculture sector in Sri Lanka employs 31.3% of the total labor force of the country, but its contribution to the Gross Domestic Production (GDP) is just 11.9% (Central Bank of Sri Lanka). So, basically one third of the labor force is utilized to produce the just over ten percent of the GDP.

This is just one side of the issue, but when we consider other issues related to this, such as large amount of government’s money spent on agriculture as subsidies (fertilizer subsidies, etc.) which can be invested on some other sector for better results, continuous poverty of rural people who are engaged in agriculture, etc. - it is clear that we have a issue of productivity within the agriculture sector and we need to address it immediately.

There are many factors (policy, legal framework, technology, knowledge, markets, research, etc.) to be considered while trying to improve the productivity of agriculture, but in all of them the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can definitely play a role of a catalyst.

Fortunately this has been understood, by the various stakeholders in the agriculture sector and as a result we can see many initiatives under the theme of ICT4 Agriculture today in Sri Lanka. As an attempt to bring all those different initiatives to one platform, Prof. Mangala De Zoysa (University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka) and some other likeminded people have organized the Sri Lanka’s first ever ICT4 Agriculture Conference (, which is really a need of the hour.


Monday, June 8, 2009

How Corporate America Really Views Africa

The Conversation Behind Closed Doors

It is always good to know the attitude of U.S. investors on Asia and Africa, where most of the poor people live in the world.

Africa is the world’s second largest and second most populous continent after Asia, with a population nearing 1 billion. It accounts for 14% of the world’s population. More than 1000 languages are spoken across its 53 countries. In addition, Africa covers 20% of the world’s total land area and contains about 30% of its mineral reserves.

A qualitative survey was conducted by Baird’s CMC in partnership with U.S. Chamber of commerce with a group of 30 leading U.S. multinational corporations from which majority were among the U.S. Fortune 100 corporations. Following are some of the industries represented in the survey;

Agribusiness, Information and Communication Technology (ICT)Infrastructure, Media

The survey could reveal five main factors that influence the decision of U.S. corporations to invest in Africa;

Rule of law - rule of law does not prevail
Attraction - no sufficiently large middle class
Risk versus rewards - risk adjusted ROI
Supportive business framework - infrastructure ?
A welcoming environment - education and health of workforce

Going forward, how can Africa attract Foreign Direct Investments (FDI)? Can they follow Asia?

You may access the Executive Summary of the Complete Survey Report at

Courtesy: Baird’s CMC & U.S. Chamber of Commerce


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Role of a Telecentre in Poverty Alleviation

Poverty indeed has many faces. Many of these faces remain unrecognized or out of focus as they are linked to other aspects of deprivation, such as isolation. The Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) initiatives such as Telecentres can start attacking this vicious cycle from Isolation. The physical and social isolation may, in turn, negatively impact on economic, health and educational status and make it increasingly difficult for poor people to take advantage of poverty alleviation strategies.

Poverty can be described as the inability of enjoying the minimal standards of living. It has many dimensions to it and one way it can be explained is by using the following diagram, the ‘deprivation trap’ (Chambers, 1983).

All the aspects (pentagons) are tightly interconnected/ interdependent and any development initiative has to be multidimensional. But depending on the development programme and the core competencies of the institution which is implementing the programme they will focus more on one or more selected areas. A Telecentre which can connect particular community with the rest of the world through the communication facilities can mainly focus on the “isolation” section and drive through it to alleviate poverty by finding solutions to the other areas such as powerlessness, vulnerability, etc.

Due to Isolation;

Little participation (not part of the mainstream)
Telecentre can give a voice to the community and let that to be heard to the local and regional decision makers

Less informed (not aware)
Telecentre can provide the up-to-date/real time information to the community

Few contacts with important people/institutions (such as markets, other services and extension workers)
Telecentres can link the community with markets, government offices, extension offices and let the community to get the information/services from those.
Telecentres can provide educational facilities through e-Learning/ distance learning, etc. Can provide market prices to the farmers and help others finding the employments in urban areas

Though the proposed approach for Telecentres is with more focus on “isolation”, there will be positive impact on other dimensions too. People will be empowered with information such as on micro credit facilities, markets and public services, allowing them to make decisions that are better informed. Once they have access to market prices, the middle man can not easily exploit the farmers. So the poor farmers are less vulnerable. They will be able to earn more and save more.

Physical weakness will be countered with more awareness on diseases and health problems, preventive actions, etc. Delivering health related educational programmes through Telecentres will lead to good health conditions among family members, and handle other issues such as frequent pregnancies, births and deaths.

Most of the poor communities are living in disaster prone areas, and more vulnerable to natural disasters. Telecentre will make them more resistant through early warning, etc. and minimize the negative impact of those. Powerlessness always leads to exploitation, but a more connected community is harder to exploit and will have the power to negotiate on terms such as labour and production.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Can Telecenters become Disaster Early Warning Centers?

Yes, it can be. Telecentre is a place rich with ICT

No, it is too much to expect from a Telecentre.

Most of the telecentres are located in rural areas; most of those areas are prone to disasters, natural or man-made. Telecentres located in those areas but still with ICT facilities telephone, internet, fax, etc. can receive a message from a central disaster early warning centre.

So if we have a simple mechanism to disseminate that information, may be using megaphones we can convert a Telecentre to Early Warning Centre in the village. Even after the disaster occurred, that Telecentre can continue a play a role of coordinating the relief work, impact assessment, finding missing people (, etc.

How many of you have tried this? What went well? What went wrong?


Monday, April 27, 2009

The Dark Horse of Sri Lanka’s ICT4D

Appreciation: Pragathi Mahilal (1964-2009)

Sri Lanka’s relatively higher PC literacy rate (16.9%) is often erroneously attributed to Nenasala telecenter network, under World Bank’s e-Sri Lanka program. No doubt, Nenasalas have played a minor role, but Pragathi Mahilal, as the co-founder of three successful Information and Communication Technology (ICT) publications, alone contributed more to bridge the digital divide in Sri Lanka. In the eve of his untimely demise, I would be doing grave injustice to my dear friend Pragathi, if I leave the story of us launching arguably the most widely read local language ICT magazine in South Asia untold.

When Wijeya Newspapers, the leading publishing house in Sri Lanka decided to launch what it called a ‘Computer and Telecommunications’ magazine in Sinhala, in 1997, it hardly looked like creating history. The market looked limited. Nine out of every ten have not seen a PC – let alone used one, and those who used invariably were business executives. E-mails circulated only in private sector, that too rarely, and government did not know this ‘new’ mode of communication. Internet outside Colombo city areas was non-existent. Forget all that. The total number of mobile phones has not even crossed 100,000. (Don’t doubt that because I remember celebrating the milestone in our fourth issue, with one angry reader complaining we cooked the numbers to promote telcos! Today this number has increased by hundred fold to 10 million plus in an 18.5 million population.)

Publishing a local language computer/communication magazine for such a readership reminded Phillip Kotler’s text book example of an optimistic marketer, who identified a remote African population that never wore shoes as the ideal market with infinite potential to sell Nikes. Not sure whether his prospective customers ever wore shoes, but ours certainly started using PCs and reading ICT related stuff.

Lal Jayawardena, then General Manager and Siri Ransainghe, Editor, Lankadeepa were behind us always, offering their fullest support, but it was Pragathi and myself did the grunt work for the monthly 16 page tabloid ‘Pariganaka’ (meaning ‘Computers’) first launched in August 1997. Having other jobs to earn our bread and butter, we both could work part time. I was the one-man editorial – had to wait for two long years to get my first sub editor. Pragathi was responsible for everything other than content; which included printing, distribution, hunting for advertisements, promotion and running errands. One of Pragathi’s first tasks was to purchase every computer book published in Sri Lanka. We were looking for not just prospective contributors but also correct Sinhala technical terms.

It was not easy compiling a readable magazine for those who didn’t know the difference between a hard disk and a floppy. Pragathi’s commitment was the only consolation. He was the ideal colleague. I cannot remember ever having a work related debate with him. Always, it was the two of us together fighting with others. To every problem Pragathi had an innovative solution. When the press was down once, he immediately got the job done elsewhere and we manually inserted the copies overnight to Daily Lankadeepa. Sales agents complained about the few hours delay, but having heard our side of the story the management agreed we did the right thing.

I am not sure whether I was Pragathi’s boss or vice versa. That never was an issue. Between the two of us, and among the team that gradually grew, it was not important who did what. All shared the same goal. We also shared the credit and of course, blame. I point blankly refused running advertorials. That was the only way to avoid promoting dubious products. Particularly some computer training schools, offering courses with questionable quality eagerly looked for our endorsement. Instead of doing so, we exposed them. As the Advertising Manager, this did not make Pragathi’s life easier. He missed a client once in a while, but in the long run we cultivated few good clients without compromising our credibility.

Launching an IT magazine was not the only challenge Wijeya Newspapers offered us. While doing so we had to computerise the semi-manual publishing process. Till then the layout department for Sinhala publications didn’t exist. The only compuetrised part of the process was type-setting. Pariganaka was the first Sinhala publication at Wijeya newspapers to have its pages set in computers. We realized the intricacies, the hard way, after losing the pages of one whole issue. The staff were not trained to take backups. We had to redo it fully to meet the publishing deadlines.

Still within few years we showed results. This was what Digital Review of Asia Pacific noted in 2006: ‘Wijeya Pariganaka’ is a monthly Sinhala magazine exclusively covering ICT, published by Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. Since its launch in 1997, the magazine has blazed a new trail in nurturing indigenous traditions and talent to meet ICT challenges. While its editorials offer the perceptive analysis of ICT policies and practices, its combination of journalistic and instructional material have helped clarify and demystify the role of ICTs in economic, social and personal development. Because it does not engage in business promotion of individuals or companies, this magazine comes closest to a chronicle of the emerging ICT culture in Sri Lanka.’

The content progressively improved from basic computer science in 1997 (Parts of a PC, MS-DOS, Windows 95, What is Internet?) to more advanced topics. We gradually introduced lessons on computer programming. Visual Basic and Java lessons became instant hits as they were not offered even by most of the computer training centers of the day. Series on 3D animation graphics too was popular. One of our early readers later contributed even to a sci-fi movie. With the assistance of International Open Source Network ( we also attempted popularizing open source software in Sri Lanka, but for some reason apart from Linux none of them became too popular.

Our hallmark, of course, was the policy oriented debates. We provided a platform not only for the ICT professionals but other leading decision makers and personalities to voice their opinions on ICT related issues. We interviewed surprised CEOs of leading banks for our issue on ‘Internet Banking’. Present Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga gave his first interview on e-gov efforts of the government to Pariganaka magazine. When contacted for an interview, Wimal Weerawansa was puzzled what we wanted to know from him about ICTs. His interview, published side by side with another with Ravi Karunanayake made ripples. Weerawansa’s statement that ICTs are only an extravaganza of the middle class started a heated debate instantly.

Saying Wijeya Pariganaka magazine created a new ICT generation is not an exaggeration. We opened the doors of technology to millions of young men and women, particularly from rural areas, who were not conversant in English. At a time ICT education had no state patronage, it was the only source of ICT knowledge. We discovered and told the story of Mahavilachchiya. We also revealed the news of e-Sri Lanka launch dedicating an entire issue. We even started the now famous Sinhala Unicode debate – by interviewing Donald Gaminitilake in 2003 – though it was later fought mostly in the blogsphere.

The sales record too has been impressive. After running two years as a supplement in a daily newspaper, it was in 1999 we were given the challenge to stand on our own feet. IT pundits were pessimistic. Even the most optimistic - media guru Edwin Ariyadasa was one - predicted a monthly circulation of 10,000 copies. We met that with the first issue itself, which Pragathi was largely responsible, while I was attending a one month training course in Singapore. (“I am taking a bath without water” was how he described the effort!) Not surprisingly, the sales dropped with the next few issues. With no precedents, we have misjudged the market. When it hit the rock bottom of 5,000 copies we even thought of discontinuing. Fortunately from then onwards the figures gradually rose, at a rate of 1,000 on average each month. By the time I left in December 2004, we had a print order of 42,000. I am told my successor, the young and energetic Palitha Amarasuriya, has increased it more than two fold and certainly doing a better job in content and quality. With no competition at horizon, Wijeya Pariganaka is the absolute market leader. Pragathi would have been proud of its achievements.

Pragathi also organized perhaps the series of first local language public IT seminars in Sri Lanka. It was all his – my involvement was marginal. Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, the Chief Guest of our first seminar lauded Pragathi’s personal efforts. Prof. V. K. Samaranayake, Prof. Gihan Dias, Dr. Bandu Ranasinghe, Chrishantha Silva (present President of the Computer Society and one of Pragathi’s buddies), Edwin Ariyadasa, Gamini Gunawardena, S.M. Banduseela, Nalaka Gunawardena, N. P. Wijeratne and T. M. G. Chanrasekera (of ‘Antharjaalaya Obe Nivasata’ fame) were some of our resource personnel. All of them contributed voluntarily. The participants were mostly from remote areas like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Hambanthota, Matara and even Vavunia and Ampara.

Pragathi also managed two popular IT publications in English. PCQuest was short lived as its editor, Anthony David Raju met with an untimely death – not too different from Pragathi’s. Then he tried resurrecting it as ‘IT-Times’ with Indi Samarajiva as editor. When Indi was discontent about the resources, Pragathi virtually begged him to continue, trying his best to sort out the differences. Even that did little to overcome some of the inherent problems all of us had to encounter, in an environment where publishing an ICT magazine was seen more as a Corporate Social Responsibility, rather than core business.

I doubt whether we exploited Pragathi’s full potential. Hailing from a village near Anuradhapura, it was a great achievement reaching the middle management level in the one of the topmost publishing house but I feel he still had much more to offer. It is sad that we could never use his energy in bridging the digital divide, for the benefit of poor rural children, particularly in his native North Central province.

‘Good Night – Sweet Prince’ was the title of the obituary I did for David Anthony Raju, founding editor of PC Quest eleven years ago. I guess it was not inappropriate for Pragathi too.

Courtesy: Chanuka Wattegama - LIRNEasia

Monday, February 2, 2009

Disaster Emergency Warning Network (DEWN)

Sri Lanka’s First Mass Alert Emergency Warning System Launched

30 January 2009, Colombo: The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) of Sri Lanka, together with Dialog Telekom launched Sri Lanka’s first mass alert warning system – the Disaster & Emergency Warning Network (DEWN), under the patronage of Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights. DEWN was developed by Dialog in collaboration with its partners the Dialog-UoM Research Lab and Microimage, following research and development undertaken after the tsunami disaster of 2004. DEWN is controlled by the DMC and is an Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) initiative by Dialog.

How DEWN Works

The Emergency Operations Centre of the DMC has been given access to the secure DEWN alerting interface. When information is received by the DMC, the information is verified and alerts can be issued.

In a potential disaster scenario, the DMC will first use DEWN to alert the emergency personnel on their individual phones, and public alerts will be issued only when a threat is adequately verified. In addition to messages received on mobile phones, specially designed DEWN remote alarms will also be used to alert nominated emergency personnel.

SMS -> District Coordinators of the DMC (25 Districts)
SMS -> Members in the Key Contact Database (heads of different institutions such as schools, hospitals, police stations, etc.)
SMS -> To the DEWN alarm devices which are located at the community centers
Cell Broadcast -> to the General Public (DEWN Alarm device too supports CB)