Villages Jump on the Internet Bus

BY NORMAN MIRANDA
Jun 01, 2010
*Special to asia!

Some companies are using innovative ways to help people in rural areas get broadband and wireless access.

 

Villages are the lifeblood of most parts of the developing world but many lack internet access. In Asia, a few companies are making use of wireless technology, microfinancing and government deregulation to help people in rural areas jump on the broadband wagon.

In Sri Lanka, villages now have access to 22 broadband sites, each with three to five personal computers and internet phone lines. This is thanks to EasySeva, founded by Stephen Schmida and Tony Nash.

 

children at easyseva

A whole new world at EasySeva


“EasySeva is helping bring the universe to our community,” said N. Chaminta, who recently opened a tele-centre at Wennepuwa, about two hours north of Colombo. “The internet is like the universe and now we feel connected to it. We are a part of the world for the first time."

The idea came to Schmida and Nash, who have been friends since college, in 2006. Schmida has a decade of non-profit experience in community development, while Nash directed strategy and marketing in telecommunications for many years.

They formed a business plan and won funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance. With partnership from the private sector, they set up EasySeva.

 

Sustainable Livelihood

At the time, Sri Lanka was recovering from the 2005 tsunami. Emergency aid was flowing into the country. The challenge was to build a sustainable livelihood for the affected people. Nash and Schmida wanted to use these funds to help start up a profitable company that would build a network of self-sustaining small businesses.

“We wanted to change what we saw as the growing prevalence of a donor-dependent culture,” Schmida said.

The two partners studied the market and came up with interesting findings.

Firstly, about a fifth of Sri Lanka’s villagers have relatives overseas. There was thus an untapped need for voice, e-mail and remittance services.

Secondly, there were small manufacturers whose basic communications lines were impeding their growth.

Thirdly, there was a shortage of teachers in the villages so the case for online education was clear. In fact, through a link with Microsoft, online English lessons are now available.

A major challenge was identifying suitable entrepreneurs. “We needed people who understood P&L,” said Nash, referring to corporate profits and losses.

For the provision of a broadband link, EasySeva teamed up with local mobile carrier Dialog Telecom.

This was crucial as Dialog was already operating public mobile services in the villages, typically run by individuals. It was decided that this pool of experienced entrepreneurs would be used as the franchisees.

 

“Business in a Box”

getting connected

A student taking an English course


To help with the franchisees’ start-up costs, some form of microfinancing was needed so EasySeva formed a partnership with ORIX Leasing in Sri Lanka.

Also, to help bring down the initial costs, Schmida and Nash came up with an easy set-up method so operators could be up and running quickly, as well as maintain service and operations standards.

This was done with what they call “Business in a Box”. The partners packaged the whole setup, making the process fairly transparent to the franchisee.

The package consists of a PC, networking equipment and software. It also provides linkage to Dialog’s broadband wireless network, training on the systems, operation manuals and – most importantly – quality control and customer service. EasySeva shops are not left on their own after start-up – there are regular visits by quality control managers and constant contact with the franchisees.

Another essential part of EasySeva’s business philosophy is that it aims to be fair to all regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, or gender. Almost a third of its franchisees are women.

Nash and Schmida seemed unconcerned when asked about competition. The Sri Lankan government already runs Nenasela, a public service that is a good source for basic internet access. EasySeva is complementary, as it also provides Voice Over Internet Protocol, which costs villagers a fraction of the price of a conventional phone call. Eventually, EasySeva will have remittance and perhaps insurance services.

The main challenges the partners face are getting microfinance for the franchisees and of course, Sri Lanka’s political instability.

For now, the business is growing rapidly. “Everyday there are lines outside of my shop of people waiting to use the internet,” said Chaminta. “They are not just doing e-mail, but downloading e-books, calling friends abroad and getting government application forms."

 

Wi-Fi Buses

buses

A bus carrying United Villages’ Wi-Fi equipment


United Villages, another private-sector initiative, has a different approach.

Its founder is Amir Alexander Hasson, who was so inspired by a course he took at the MIT Sloan School of Business on Developmental Entrepreneurship that he came up with the idea of “non real time” internet service. United Villages now operates in various parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

norman miranda

Currently a head hunter for the high tech industry, Norman Miranda has spent the last 27 years in various roles all in the IT and Telecommunications industry. He travels whenever time and money allows. Norman continues on his quest to cover every major wine growing region in the world.