Sri Lanka -- Ingenuity Extends Mobile Communications in Remote Region

In most parts of Sri Lanka, mobility is limited due to the high cost of public transport and irregular services. But the award-winning "eTuktuk" concept is bridging communal divides.

by / February 5, 2008
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Photo: People crowd around the eTuktuk during a visit to Weliganga village.


On the streets South Asia, the Tuktuk (so called for the peculiar sound of its engine) -- basically a three-wheeled motorcycle modified to carry passengers -- is a familiar sight. Its popularity stems from the fact that it is almost as affordable as a two-wheeler and it can squeeze into the smallest of lanes and travel over the bumpiest of roads. But up in the hilly region of Kothmale in central Sri Lanka, this humble vehicle has evolved into something much more than just a mode of cheap transport. It has become a full-fledged mobile telecenter, literally taking the concept of Community Multimedia Centre (CMC) to community doorsteps and empowering its people to bring about change and improvements.

In fact so innovative is this concept that it even won the the Stockholm Challenge Global Knowledge Partnership Award in Kuala Lumpur in December -- under the Public Administration category -- as a project that not only tops the list of ICT (Information Communication Technology) initiatives supporting development, but also for taking ICT to communities that have been marginalized by remoteness, lack of infrastructural facilities and poverty.

With a laptop, battery-operated printer, camera, telephone, recorder and scanner, and with Internet provided via a CDMA-enabled wireless connection, a small radio broadcasting set that can narrowcast content through the CDMA-internet connection, and everything powered by a 1000W generator, a dozen-odd Tuktuks (called eTuktuks) roam the 20 odd villages in the 30 kilometers radius of Kothmale everyday to extend the services of a traditional telecenter and radio station.

The eTuktuks roam these villages with three basic objectives. The most important is encouragement of broader community participation in the activities of an existing community, followed by increasing access and awareness of ICTs, and providing training and support for the delivery and creation of relevant localized content. "But above all," says Benjamin Grubb, its project coordinator, "by taking access (to ICT) directly to villages and presenting it to users in a familiar environment, eTuktuk is making technology less daunting."

In its true sense then, this project is just an extension of the good old Community Multimedia Centre and Radio Station. In simple terms, by making the equipment mobile, it facilitates first mile access to remote communities. So what's the big deal? After all, isn't it being done all over the world in some form or other?

The difference really lies in the circumstances under which this concept operates. Its novelty lies not in making a telecenter or a radio station mobile, but rather in the fact that it is bridging a digital divide caused, to some extent, by the lack of infrastructure, even transportation, and poverty.

"In most parts of Sri Lanka, mobility is almost always limited due to the high cost of public transport, irregular services and associated time involved in travel," says Ben. "Access is also restricted due to communal reasons -- factors such as caste, gender and ethnicity." The eTuktuk is also bridging the communal divides by increasing community participation and inculcating a sense of common cause, he addss

The eTuktuk has taken community building to a level which even government efforts could not achieve. According to its project managers, the telecenter and radio is not unknown in the Kothmale region, which had both ever since 1989. However since they were owned by the government and were priority focused, both of these tools were lying in a "state of neglect." By taking the radio station to the doorsteps, eTuktuk then has bought renewed vitality to the radio and telecenter in the region. Compared to the government-owned radio, the eTuktuk has also brought in far more creative reporting formats that incorporate a variety of media beyond basic radio programming, claims its operators.

As well, the scope of community participation has also increased as the vehicle ventures out to more and more villages where it facilitates workshops, training programs and cultural events.

The project has also facilitated a variety of workshops and training programs for the staff and volunteers of eTutuk as well as the communities it serves. For instance, most of the 20 villages it serves do not have electricity, something that makes evenings absolutely unproductive for its residents. Some of the eTuktuk's, that are specially equipped to carry portable projection sets, screen educational content in the evenings and "since the villagers have nothing better to do in the dark, it ensures a high level of participation and dissemination of information," says Ben.

According to Stockholm Challenge, "the project places an emphasis on appropriate technology that is both affordable and sustainable in a local context." Indeed, run and operated by the a voluntary organization called Internet Listeners Club, eTuktuk, conceived in early 2006 required about US $20000 to set up. The initial capital costs were funded by the Pan Asia Networking ICT Development R&D Fund of the Internet Development Research Center (IDRC). The daily running costs, which is just about $200 a day is borne by a local charity called the MJM Charitable Foundation, while many local companies like Suntel, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation "lend various forms of support in kind," says Ben.

However, although this project won its award under the public administration category in the Stockholm Challenge, "it is not really being used much for extending governmental services just yet," says Ben. Until now the only e-governance use eTuktuk has seen includes distribution of digital ID cards, delivering examination results on a trial basis, digitization of land records to some extent, and digitization of birth certificates in some villages. "That's because the concept hasn't caught up fully, but there will be more to come this year," says Ben.

Nevertheless, even as its benefits unfold and its full potential realized, what is clear is that eTuktuk has already started making a difference for many Kothmale residents. "All through my life, I have always been a shy person," says the 28-year old Prabha Kottegoda, one of the radio jockeys in eTuktuk. "I could hardly speak a word with a stranger. But ever since I became a radio jockey my life has hanged for good and I see it full of possibilities. Interacting with people and making programs have changed me as a person. I can talk to anyone now."

This is why Ben believes that the concept of eTuktuk should not be contained. "Its time has come and it should be replicated," he says. He says that there are already "three concrete examples of replication" of the eTuktuk: one in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu in Southern India, one in Jharkhand, and the other in the Hambantota district of Sri Lanka. In Nagapattinam, a collaborative project between UNDP, Alcatel-Lucent, VOICES and local NGOs who have helped establish Village Information Centres (VICs) are developing a mobile WiMAX network to deliver information and services to tsunami affected communities living along the coast. The project initially plans to introduce six auto-rickshaws to service the needs of the area. The WiMAX network will deliver broadband Internet, VoIP and assist the mobile units to respond in a disaster situation.

Yet another similar project is under trial in an underdeveloped and remote district in Jharkhand, India. Meanwhile, the Hambantota project aims to familiarize school children in the remote areas with the use of IT and simple broadcast equipment. Here, the auto-rickshaw is sent from school to school with an instructor and is supported by a local initiative called Plan Sri Lanka.

"All these projects are in trial stages but could be scaled-up to the size of eTuktuk", says Ben. "The eTuktuk serves about two hundred thousand people directly and about a hundred thousand indirectly. But soon the concept could serve millions."


Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.