John Keells engages rural youth in sustainable BPO business

Friday, 1 October 2010 23:33 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As we entered Mahavilachchiya, a former ‘border village’ in the North Central Province, complete with its lush vegetation and humid atmosphere, I couldn’t help but notice the many signs of the slow but steady development in progress.

Situated about one hour away from the city of Anuradhapura, this little hamlet, adjacent to the Wilpattu National Park, has come a long way from what it was during the conflict, and is now the epitome of tranquillity.

So what sets Mahavilachchiya apart from other such rural villages? It is the unique presence of Sri Lanka’s first rural BPO, which is presently flourishing in the village. It functions as a service provider to InfoMate (Pvt) Ltd. – a subsidiary of John Keells Holdings PLC.

The company’s able staff – notably all youth from the village – carry out transaction processing as an extension of InfoMate’s role of captive finance and accounting service provider for the John Keells Group.

Initiated in 2007, the result of this innovative project was a collaboration between John Keells Social Responsibility Foundation (Foundation) and the Foundation for Advancing Rural Opportunity (FARO) which resulted in the setting up OnTime Technologies (Pvt) Ltd. (OnTime), managed by youth of the village.

The immediate objective of the project was to create sustainable employment for talented rural youth, enabling them to work from the familiar environment of their own village, while the long-term vision of the initiative was to create BPO capacity for Sri Lanka’s future outsourcing growth.

For the Foundation, the project comes under its focus area of Community/Livelihood Development and is aligned with the Millennium Development Goal of Poverty Alleviation.   

The project has gone onto to do just that, as we soon found out, when we visited OnTime’s efficient BPO centre. The scene would catch a visitor by surprise; a state-of-the-art office buzzing with activity in the middle of the sleepy village, with 17 young men and women hard at work at their individual work stations.

“I am 100% accurate,” reads an inspiring note stuck on every computer monitor, outlining the professional work ethic followed by the young staff. Seven boys and 10 girls make up the staff, providing a close gender balance.   

“We currently process documents for John Keells Group through a virtual private network and we are involved in six to seven types of functions in this area,” says Nirosh Ranathunga, the 33-year-old CEO of OnTime, summing up the complex duties of the staff.

A resident of Anuradhapura, he runs his own software development company in the town, and shuttles to and fro, efficiently managing the BPO centre.

“If this organisation was not here today, all of these talented young men and women would have had to leave the village and go to either Anuradhapura or Colombo in order to find work of this nature. But today, the brain drain in the village has minimised, and these young men and women in turn have an office located mostly a walking distance from their homes, in a safe and secure environment.”

Shalika Dissanayake (23), the youthful COO of OnTime Technologies (Pvt) Ltd., went to add that if not for this organisation, she would still be unemployed and at home.

“When I joined OnTime I didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘BPO’! But we received a sound training of one and half months in Colombo with all facilities provided by John Keells. By working at our company, we not only get to earn and save, but also learn the professionalism and work ethics of organisations such as InfoMate and John Keells which we would have otherwise not been able to experience. As a result, there has been a vast improvement in the English knowledge, personality development, team spirit and the ability to handle professional challenges, in each and every one of us.”

It was impressive to see that all the young staff of OnTime possessed a mobile phone and used it with great familiarity in connecting with the InfoMate offices in Colombo. Some of them rode to work on their own motor cycles or bicycles. Shalika explained that a boost in the quality of life of the young men and women in the village benefits the village community as a whole.

“With most of our fathers being farmers, members of our generation have been able to progress from our traditional family situation and do bigger and better things thanks to this organisation being present in the village. Some of us have our own computers at home. This has helped raise the bar for our generation. And most importantly we get to do this while staying in our village itself, so everyone benefits.”

According to Isuru Seneviratne (23), who joined the organisation in 2007, the fact that John Keells is in constant touch with them is extremely encouraging. “While we are given the independence to manage our organisation, both the management of InfoMate and John Keells is proactively involved with every aspect, and if we need any clarifications or advice regarding our day to day work, any one of us could pick up the phone and even speak to the CEO of InfoMate. That is the kind of relationship we have.”

Chandika Dissanayake (24), a staff member of two years, agreed, adding, “Be it upgrading our internet connection or our power supply, installing a SAP system, training, and facilities during training – all of this is responded to and rectified almost immediately. We were, for instance, facing quite a difficulty due to the constant power failures, and this issue was remedied with the installation of a new generator.”

While retaining staff, especially some of the young men, had been a considerable challenge for the organisation at first, this issue is gradually stabilising. Nirosh added that a regular staff member at OnTime easily earns over Rs. 10,000 per month which is an impressive amount for a school leaver, especially since they also get the chance of saving almost their entire salary due to fact that they have virtually no expenditure in terms of transport, lodging or food.  As for future plans for OnTime Technologies, Nirosh went onto add that they hope to increase their staff to 20.   

With this project having reached the standard of being a sustainable business model, it has not only created impressive economic benefits to the company itself, but also simultaneously continues to generate sustainable employment opportunities for rural youth in their own environment. Continuing to uphold the high standards of this pilot project, John Keells hopes to replicate this business model in other such rural villages in the years to come.