Nandasiri Wanninayaka

Ashoka Fellow
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Sri Lanka
Fellow Since 2007
This description of Nandasiri Wanninayaka's work was prepared when Nandasiri Wanninayaka was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007 .

Introduction

In rural areas plagued by unemployment, isolation, and fractured schools, Nandasiri Wanninayaka (Wanni) teaches students the skills they need to be competitive in the global marketplace. Wanni found a way to bring modern technology to isolated communities, link villagers to outside networks through email, and use alternative education (with an emphasis on the English language) to foster teamwork, creativity, and self-esteem among students. Wanni’s plans include contracting an outsourcing venture that will employ 1,000 youth, creating access to a free English satellite TV station, and establishing e-commerce so farmers can avoid middlemen and sell their products at market prices. Horizon Lanka Foundation’s innovative methods have attracted international interest and the Sri Lankan government has committed to replicate his model in many parts of the country.

The New Idea

Students in rural Sri Lanka are at a competitive disadvantage in today’s economy for two reasons: They lack the training and English skills typically provided by urban schools, and the low levels of infrastructure throughout rural areas discourage business investment. Recognizing that the educational system in Sri Lanka is failing to keep pace with the requirements of the job market, Wanni has created a parallel system to better prepare rural children to face the competitive world. His model relies on innovative teaching methods that combine English with computer-skills training, and the simultaneous development of community-wide Internet connectivity.

English skills serve little purpose if jobs remain unavailable. Wanni thus supplements his teaching efforts with the development of a technological infrastructure designed to attract communication, training, and employment opportunities that would otherwise exist only in cities. He is turning his village into an “e-village,” equipping it with household computers and Internet access. Using a combination of soft loans, subsidies, and gifts, he has provided over fifty computers to families and public schools in the area. Of these, thirty are connected to the Internet via an affordable “mesh” network technology provided by a popular mobile phone company.

Thanks to these efforts, Wanni convinced a leading company to start a Business Process Operation (BPO) in the area, which will employ 1,000 youth in the coming years. His teaching methods have already spread to adjoining villages, and he hopes to negotiate similar business contracts in the future. Wanni is creating a powerful model that is attracting the attention of local communities, the national government, the national and international business community, and multi-lateral institutions.

The Problem

Despite Sri Lanka’s high overall literacy rate, there exists a major divide between its rural and urban schools. Most qualified teachers opt for the big cities and reputable schools, leaving rural schools to struggle with untrained teachers and fewer resources. In Wanninayaka’s district alone, over 160 teaching vacancies remain unfilled. Moreover, the education system is largely designed to serve urban children who, in addition to the better education they receive in school, are also able to obtain private tutoring.

As a result, rural students are often inadvertently excluded from the country’s highly competitive universities. Their lower levels of education make them largely ineligible for government jobs and the most competitive jobs in the private sector. The poor educational quality and lack of job training in Sri Lanka’s rural areas has produced some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country, particularly in the rural Dry Zone areas of North Central Province. Local youth there must typically choose between joining the army, becoming an underpaid garment factory worker, or resorting to subsistence-oriented agriculture—none of which provide a sufficient living wage.

Unfortunately, numerous attempts by the government and development groups to increase job skills and computer literacy in rural areas have failed. Many projects invest in hardware and computers but do not provide sufficient resources, such as trained local staff and funding, to implement effective use of the technology. The government provides each rural school with two computers; yet with an average of 500 students each, these computers serve little purpose. Millions of rupees have been spent on tele-center initiatives in villages, but because of the lack of trained users, the computers often go untouched.

The lack of facilities for communication in most villages heightens the problem. Only 60 percent of the country is covered by the power grid. As a result, Sri Lanka’s rural villages have been unable to take advantage of the country’s rapid economic growth, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and isolation. However, more recently, communication has improved in Mahavilachchiya and throughout the country. Wanni convinced Dialog Telekom to cover Mahavilachchiya and other operators followed suit. Currently, the village has access to mainstream mobile companies and villagers are able to use mobile phones from their farms in the jungles.

The Strategy

Having struggled to find a job for five years after finishing school, Wanni understands the importance of knowing English firsthand. When he later began work as an English teacher in a rural school, he discovered that students were unable to connect to the materials provided by the school system: The traditional teaching methods and outdated textbooks were dull and unrelated to the daily issues the students faced. He developed his own teaching methods, with a focus on teaching the children to write essays in English about themselves, their families, the village, and popular subjects like television programs. Wanni eventually published Horizon, a handwritten journal featuring the students’ essays. Using a donated computer and printer, Wanni then taught the children to type their essays in MS Word. Eager to use their new skills, the children wrote more and more essays each day. Finding that computer skills and English knowledge went hand in hand, Wanninayaka formed a club in which students can engage in further practice. He used karaoke to teach the children English songs, and gave them microphones during sporting events so that they could give running commentary in English. The club quickly became a popular hang-out spot for many of the children after school.

With the help of twenty students, Wanni transformed these early efforts into the Horizon Lanka Foundation, an informal school to teach English and computer literacy. Putting their skills to work, the students launched a website for the organization in 2001, at www.horizonlanka.org. The center has since branched out to provide comprehensive education to children throughout the village. In addition to standard coursework, the center teaches young students other values required in the modern working environment: Cleanliness, personal presentation, and teamwork. He introduced several extracurricular activities, including sports and self-defense training to give students a more rounded education. His various teaching exercises incorporate the need for teamwork, creativity, dedication, and a positive attitude. Parents meet on a certain day each month after work to discuss their children’s progress and future. They are shown video clips of the students’ work on a huge multimedia screen. Their involvement, as well as the dedication and hard work of committed local staff, are central to the sustainability of the Horizon tele-center.

Along with the center’s educational efforts, Wanni is working to both enhance students’ access to computers outside the school, and to improve the village’s overall technological connectivity. He has provided computers to over fifty homes through a combination of microcredit, donations, and refurbished computers from companies. Wanni formed a partnership with Enterprise Technologies, one of the largest networking companies in Sri Lanka, which installed a “mesh” network technology to connect the household computers to the Internet free of charge. The students are thus able to fund the costs of continuing their education by designing websites and engaging in other income-generating activities over the Internet. To help students get used to emailing, Wanni links them to mentors from outside the village to encourage communication. The Foundation additionally runs a computer lab with 24-hour Internet access, available to the entire community. There, older students who pass public examinations but are unable to enter universities can take an in-depth computer-training course to enable them to quickly secure ICT-related jobs.

Wanni is now focusing on bringing new job opportunities to the area by building partnerships and programs that can benefit from the village’s growing computer literate workforce, improved infrastructure, and the growing talents of the students to enhance the economic livelihood of the community. Many companies have shown interest in establishing business process outsourcing ventures in the area. A leading company has outsourced its English Language Accounting system to the BPO that was created in Wanni’s village with, http://www.ontimetechnologies.net/. Wanni’s long-term dream is to make Horizon Lanka an incubator to start more companies in Mahavilachchiya which will eventually employ around 1,000 people total.

The Person

Wanni was one of nine children growing up in rural Sri Lanka. His father was both a farmer and an eye doctor, with a passion for politics and literature. While his mother only attended primary school, both she and her husband took a special interest in their children’s education, and pushed them to excel academically.

Most of Wanni’s friends joined the armed forces after finishing school, but Wanni’s personal convictions against violence kept him from doing the same. Over the next five years, he applied for various positions but struggled to secure a job. During that time, he realized that unless the younger generation of the rural population was properly equipped to succeed in Sri Lanka’s changing economic environment, they too would be left behind. After various career attempts, he underwent training to become an English teacher. Assigned to a rural school, he soon learned about the inadequacy of language education there. He experimented with various teaching methods, and came up with a program that was popular among students but widely discouraged among school administrators.

Inspired by a group of determined students and their desire for educational advancement, Wanni resigned from his government teaching position, and established the Horizon Lanka Foundation. The school’s first computer came from a Sri Lankan couple from Japan, who learned of the Horizon School over the Internet.

Wanni’s struggle to bring computer technology to rural villages has taken him in various directions. He has provided computers to police stations and Buddhist temples, and has even trained the Home Guards to use computers. He envisions a post-war Sri Lanka in which the disbanded youth on both sides can secure jobs in IT, and thereby find acceptance in the nonviolent mainstream. His e-village has attracted attention from other parts of Sri Lanka and countries around the world, and similar efforts are being independently replicated.