Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Smart Devices to poor communities! Too early?

We all know Smart Devices have now  surpassed PCs in the global marketplace. But how relevant is that progress to the Bottom of the Pyramid communities? Are they ready to take up Smart Devices? Will they impact positively on their livelihoods? How sustainable (and scalable) are they?

We have gathered encouraging evidence from Sri Lanka to answer many questions and test underlying assumptions (if you are an optimist, as we are).

Are the BOP communities ready to take up smart devices?
There are two very interesting projects progressing in this area in Sri Lanka: Smart Villages and Android Village Hubs, both implemented by Sarvodaya-Fusion since 2011. Both projects have been introducing smart devices (Android Smartphones and Tablets) to about 15 rural communities in five districts as community-owned, shared devices.

With training kept as simple as providing basic instructions on how to operate the devices, plus some instruction about social media, the project team reports: 'a magical connection sparks on-the-spot' which fuels collective engagement, and unleashes creativity and enthusiasm. Udara Dharmasena, the project manager, reports that the best evidence of their excitement with these devices is the remarkable change of language from “who will support us?” to “how can we buy these?”.

What impact does it generate?
We have observed the impact in terms of diversity, scale and speed.

Diversity of impact
School children (below age 13) have identified Android Apps (Google Sky Map and Star Chart App) to stargaze for their school projects. Teachers at pre-schools started using Smartphones to teach English language in rural locations. Micro-entrepreneurs have used Smartphone devices to market their handicrafts through Facebook.

Scale of impact
Over 15 rural local language bloggers sprung out of the project, writing about diverse issues from personal affection to local governance. Citizen Journalism has been identified by the project team as a new topic on which to provide additional training to facilitate these bloggers.

Social media marketing, using Facebook as a tool, has become a trend among Enterprise Promotion Officers where they sell cattle, passion-fruit, even compost and many other local products of micro-entrepreneurs.

Emerging market linkages are diverse, from the business community in the capital (Colombo) to the Facebook community in-country and beyond, as far as expats living in the USA. The most eye-catching outcome has happened in a community where coir-brush  production (micro-enterprise), has increased from 210 units to 1million unites as a collective community response to new market demand triggered by this project initiative. (Watch the youtube video). 

Speed of impact
Benchmarking with the impact of the telecentres that Fusion first introduced in 1997 in Sri Lanka, this current impact is significantly faster. It took more than 2 years to involve the first village youth group to engage with the first ever telecentre established in the country at Kahawatta, Rathnapura District, in 1997. With Smart Devices it took only about 3 months to generate an impact even on a much broader scale.

How sustainable (scalable) is this?
A recent study* on the emerging ecosystem of Smart Devices illustrates early signs of scalability.

Low cost Chinese handsets such as Huawei, combined with competitive broadband packages offered by mobile operators, improve affordability. Prices of the Android phone handsets have fallen since their initial introduction
price from US$430 to US$118.

Though the app market is still a small one in Sri Lanka, it is growing quickly.  SETT Singhala/Tamil Web Browser (an Android App) developed in Sri Lanka and targeting local communities enables web browsing in the local language. Before this app, a year ago, people who were not English literate could not even think of interacting with these devices. There are now over 50,000 downloads of this app recorded at the Android market (Google Play).

As demonstrated in previous blog (Android: emerging eco-system and business models), there is a unique Android ecosystem emerging in Sri Lanka. It has a diversity of partners to build content material, a business case to sustain the process, and focus to serve a local need. This ecosystem has enabled Social Enterprises and start-up app developers to work together. And more importantly they focus on domestic needs.

Table: Popular Android apps developed by Sri Lankan App developers

Name of the App
App Developer
Sinhala Dictionary Offline
Sachith Dassanayake
100,000 -500,000
SETT Sinhala/Tamil web browser
Bhasha Lanka (Pvt) Ltd
50,000 - 100,000
Sinhala Tamil English Lexicon
Sachith Dassanayake
50,000 - 100,000
Omi, The card game in Sinhala
Sri Droiders
50,000 - 100,000
Bhasha Sinhala Dictionary
Bhasha Lanka (Pvt) Ltd
10,000 - 50,000
Helakuru Sinhala Keyboard+IME
Bhasha Lanka (Pvt) Ltd
10,000 - 50,000
Siyalu sinhala web browser
10,000 - 50,000
Sri Lanka Lottery Results
Chandima Kalansooriya
10,000 - 50,000
AXLO Sri Lanka
4 Axis Solutions (Pvt) Ltd
10,000 - 50,000
Sri Lanka Train Schedule
ICTA Sri Lanka
10,000 - 50,000
Source: Google Play, May, 2013


This optimism has its own challenges in scaling up the process. Infrastructure limitations such as 2G vs 3G coverage, the limitations of the low cost Smart Devices (e.g. battery capacity), and the limitations of apps themselves, are some challenges to note. Some policy issues, such as online payment gateways, continue to strain the market opportunities created by the ecosystem. Nevertheless, on balance, it provides more hope for the rural disadvantaged communities to enjoy the benefits of this rapidly advancing mobile landscape.

(* Please refer to the country case study Sri Lanka: published in Information Economy Report 2012, UNCTAD, p45). 

Blog by: Harsha Liyanage, Philip Edge & Udara Dharmasena (Sarvodaya-Fusion)

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We are consultants for European organisations working in international development. Specialized in Innovation - Economic Sustainability - Social Impact Assessment in ICT4D and Mobile for Development (M4D) sectors. We have 20 + years of experiences and our clients include UN Agencies, EU, IDRC.

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