Corona updates.

Sri Lanka is doing pretty well on COVID19.
People are back on to everything, going back to what it was like before. Masks are fast disappearing, social distancing…well what is that ?

Good thing is people hit hard by the lockdown can now get back on their feet.
Bad thing is going back to what it was, negate our learnings of the pandemic. Because…

IT IS NOT OVER.

Today’s ( Sep 15) Covid update:

USA, India and Brazil are hotspots. Global deaths are closing on that ominous number of 1 million.
Just let that sink in.
1,000,000 lives lost.
We are now immune to numbers. Numbers do not move us. The severity of the pandemic is like a bygone.

Our ways of living and trading have changed. What if there’s another wave ?

Which is why we need to get in to digital ways of life, with care.

If companies need to stay relevant in this VUCA world you need to get your business models digital, not just the marketing.

Universities, you need to get your courses online, fast.

Governments, there’s no better moment than this to make your e-gov services accessible to all.

There are good examples. But it should not stop there. It needs to get better.

Daily collections at small shops (unbanked)

MIRISSA, SRI LANKA - MARCH 2014: View Of Local Shop In Mirissa ...

A man in motor cycle jacket and helmet comes in to the shop and shows a yellow card printed with rows and columns. The shop owner reaches for his drawer, pulls out a similar yellow card. Shop owner gives Rs. 1500/- to the man. Both of them scribble on their cards, swap them, and smile through the masks.

Later I got to know that it was the process for daily collection. The shop owner has taken a Rs. 30,000 loan. Term is to pay back 33,000 with in a month. Shop owner pays 1500/- each day until he reaches 33,000.

This system runs with out collaterals. Runs on trust. Runs on risk not documented . In some cases fear is the collateral.

This is one snapshot of the unbanked in Sri Lanka. The shop keeper is not worthy enough for banks to lend. So the shop keeper has to find alternatives with in his means. It is high interest, sure, but it is what he has.

The shop owner explained me the benefits he receive through the system.
– He was not charged any interest during the covid lockdown months. The lender has been very reasonable. Even most of the banks could not live up to that standard.
– He can pay back the loan in any number of instalments, as long as it is completed with in a month.

Also I learnt the next door shop owner has taken a Rs. 100,000 loan from the same lender and have fled never to be reached again. Bad debts.

Questions to ask in the blackout.

Like COVID19 did, yesterday’s islandwide electricity blackout should give our decision makers the space to reflect on our energy production. Different action is what is needed. Old ways of doing things will result in same outcomes.

The new Government is looking ways to reduce funds flowing outwards by strengthening domestic production.
Why can’t we stop funds outflow from energy production? ( *cough* fossil fuel).

Let’s frame the questions in a different light. This is for decision makers.

What if, we could adopt what India did with solar? Achieving more than 50% of energy from renewables. They have policy issues but they are trying hard.

What if, we can look up to the case studies of the top 10 countries in the climatescope rankings ?
(Chile, India, jordan, Brazil, Rwanda, Philipines, China, Mexico, Peru, Thailand)

All big issues give decision makers two options.
1) Bring excuses and play whataboutism, until customers forget the issue.
2) Bring new ideas and execute them like if their lives depends on it.

I pray they chose the second.

4G broadband is a Luxury.

Living in Piliyandala, I have taken 4G broadband for granted. This is the internet I received today in Anuradhapura. An eye blinding speed of 0.04 Mbps download and 0.11 Mbps upload.

Just 6 kilometers in to the main road (not a byroad) towards Mihintale, 4G broadband is almost non existent from my ISP.

I checked mobile 4G speed. 2.6 Mbps and 1.85 Mbps. It was better. But still a not ok speed.

I wondered what would have happened to me, if I lived at that location in Anuradhapura during COVID19 lockdown.

Frustrated, I checked with the place I stayed and they were gracious enough to provide their ( a different ISP) broadband for me.

Just like proper highways enable people to trade outside their communities, with proper broadband people will be able to grab new global opportunities.
COVID19 forced all of us to embrace all things digital. The way we work, learn, and build businesses have changed with in a month. There was nothing else we could do. We were pushed. We adapted. That possibility was hanging right infront of our eyes even before COVID19, but we did not bother.

That internet meme captured us so well. ( Was it your  CEO who made the push for digital in your company? No, it was COVID19 😊)

But without 4G broadband, rural Sri Lanka will be sidelined once again. People are now ready to buy. ISPs and TRCSL need to increase quality coverage.

The Online Lives of Young Children in Sri Lanka

Sarvodaya-Fusion’s IT YahaMaga program at a school somewhere in Kuliyapitiya

Nicholas CarlisleFounder/President of Power of Zero and No Bully, has interviewed me few months back on ‘The Online Lives of Young Children in Sri Lanka’ as part of their series on the online lives of young children across the world.

Power of Zero is a global campaign to reshape early learning for a connected world. It focuses on children aged eight and under. Young children (8 and under) spend an average of two hours a day with screen media and the time increases every year. Technology has now become part of the landscape of childhood.

I talked about my experience of Sarvodaya-Fusion’s ‘IT YahaMaga’ program, where we have raised awareness about internet safety and ethics, for more than 50,000 school students in less than 5 years.  You can read the full interview here to see my answers to questions like below. I would like to see your comments and critique which I will report back to Power of Zero to update their case studies.

Are they using the kid friendly version of Facebook Messenger?

Mostly no, because they are using their parent’s phone and often their parent’s Facebook account. More educated parents create separate accounts that are child friendly, but that is a much smaller percentage. I talk to people in the rural sections, and I ask them “Are you on Facebook?” and they say yes, and I say “Are you on the Internet?” and they say no.  They get their mobile data enabled by a prepaid connection, but all they can see is that they are on the Facebook app. They don’t realise that they are on the Internet. I am not talking about the young people here, I am talking about the adults in rural sections. They are not asking the questions that they need to ask such as: “How do I enable my mobile data?” and “How do I set my privacy’” and “Do I have to be careful about sharing pictures?” Those conversations are only now starting to happen.

Mission of ‘Power of Zero’ is to build every child’s powers to connect well, by setting up the next generation to harness the positive power of the internet and end online hate, bullying, and violence.

I highly recommend their learning materials section. It has lot of useful material if you are a parent or a facilitator in building capacity of children to be safe online.

Micro finance should be regulated

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A loan officer somewhere in India. There are good outcomes when done right, but things have turned bad. 

Micro finance is not glorious as majority of the reports out there proclaim. There are many findings to the contrary, including this article of FT. 

Micro finance has been converted from a small enterprise creation help for poor people to a monster greedy business machine for finance institutes to exploit poor people. 

According to the Lanka Microfinance Practitioners’ Association (LMFPA), data gathered from 37 MFIs for from 2017 to 2018 shows that there are over 2.8 million active borrowers, of whom over 2.4 million are women, who have taken loans amounting to Rs. 94 billion. 

The micro finance sales people are dishing out loans ( very small loan at bizarre high interest rates as much as 40%) to poor people for consumption purposes. Sales people know it. They don’t care because  their commission is at play. The recipient ( Most of the time a woman) is not finance literate at all, and all they care is getting that money to get out of the trouble they are in for the moment. 

It was found that women are compelled to borrow to finance health emergencies, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies and weddings through microcredit facilities. “They give the loan for livelihood development, but we use the loan for other purposes. I showed tailoring and cattle rearing as reasons for getting the loan,” said a female from Batticaloa, while another from Monaragala said that she took the loan saying it was for cattle rearing. “I showed someone else’s cattle as my own since I don’t have my own. That is how people borrow. We show different means to borrow money,” she said

As the article mentions, there’s a direct link between women migrating to middle east countries as house maids to pay back the very small loans they received as micro finance, which have become un payable.  

The micro finance space is not regulated. This is sick.

Hithawathi හිතවතී

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You are a female. Imagine a scenario where you get bullied, trolled or blackmailed on internet. Or that happens to someone you know, someone you care.

Ask them to call 0114216062.

Hithawathi is a timely initiative launched by LK domain to support the ones who get distressed on internet in Sri Lanka.

Hithawathi has a website ( www.hithawathi.lk)

You can email at help@hithawathi.lk

First AI Summit in Sri Lanka

My life has changed 180 degrees, when I did the data science coursera course from Johns Hopkins University, . That new learning cannot be undone. My understanding of the new world has changed. I started conversations with few of my colleagues and mentors on how Data Science, Machine Learning and AI can make a real change for a country like Sri Lanka. How can it help the common man, Siripala and Sumanawathi who are left behind. It was a very limited niche conversation for me, until yesterday.

There were 350 people packed in to a hall in Kingsbury: developers, junior and senior Managers, CEOs, academics, and of course a fantastic lineup of speakers from across the world

Although it was a full day event, which most of us find impossible to commit in this age, I was glad to see most of the audience staying until 6 pm. Kudos to Jeevan and SLASSCOM team for making this happen.

I had a lively conversation with Yasantha Rajakarunanayake, who went viral in social media when Jeff Bezos introduced him to the world as the smartest guy at Princeton. Yasantha is back in the Sri Lanka after 30+ years and he’s excited to see the enthusiasm for AI , because he believes customised education is the only way forward for a sustainable world and that is only possible with AI.

It was good to catch up with Chrishantha Fernando, a Sri Lankan working as a Senior Research Scientist at Google Deepmind. Yes, you saw that right. I told him about the new digital aspirations of young people in Sri Lanka and also about the mental blocks that prevent rural Sri Lanka from reaping those opportunities. He listened carefully and said “Keep on doing what you guys are doing, because future waits for no one. It is here to be embraced. Do not be in the sidelines.”

Yep.

 

Koombiyo – A Creative Dissonance.

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Yesterday at the A&K literary festival, the ‘Koombiyo’ panel discussion was a revelation.

The panel had the 2 creators ( Lakmal and Dhamitha), 2 actors ( Thumindu and Yureni) and the official from ITN (Wimal) who made sure Koombiyo got the air time. Wimal has played a major role, because Koombiyo was refused by many parties, because it was not main stream.

They were brutally honest and candid with their responses. They appreciated the complex changes happening in society, attraction of online video streaming services and social media. Everyone could feel their energy resonate inside the dome of the Empire ballroom of Mount Lavinia hotel.

The creators mentioned the fuel for their creativity was never the money or the desire to get it aired on a TV channel. Rather they wanted to do something ultra fun (අපි ආතල් එකට මේක කලේ). Come to think of it, ‘Koombiyo’ is the only Sri Lankan teledrama I watched again and again since ‘Palingu manike’. Fun fact: ‘Palingu Manike’ was created in 1985.

I was particularly impressed with answers the creators gave to the question; “ When will we get to see Season 2?”

Dhamitha said “I don’t think we will do season 2. It is nearly impossible to do a sequel when this much fandom has been popped up. When we did season 1 we had nothing to lose. Back then we were kicked in ass and we could not even stand up. But now, we have everything to lose. If we do not do something better, we will lose all the hype we created.”

Lakmal said “I have to tell you something. I want to do season 2, but this guy ( Dhamitha) pushes me down.” ( Laughter from both)

I think what made ‘koombiyo’ that much entertaining with a script that is almost made in heaven is due to the creative dissonance, the tension the two creators have for almost anything that they say and do. In normal life, we think agreement is better. But I found out from them that healthy argument is what makes something beautiful.

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One last thing. The actors were humble and very approachable for the fans to get selfies and to do small talk. We never felt they were celebrities. Their individual brilliance have been collectively driven towards a dream that is “koombiyo”. No wonder they have created ripples in TV and social media.

I would like to see Season 2. But I am ok if they decide not to.

Uber Eats & Pickme Food : A new social dimension.

uber eats

Yesterday I ordered my first Uber Eats. A vege fried rice got delivered in 35 minutes. Very impressive service. What uber and pickme have done to taxis, was not a thing until it was introduced. Now it is the new normal. Uber Eats and Pickme food will change food industry with in 2 years, that we will not be able to think of a colombo with out 30 minute food delivery.

Right now, both are serving a very small area in Colombo. Testing times for both. Burning money for both, I guess. Because Uber eats did not charge me for delivery. Idea is to get more people try the service. These services need thousands of users to make it viable. Scale is the game.

While we customers enjoy the convenience, most of us have no idea what a rough sea this delivery business is. Pizza hut do 30 minute delivery with their own cadre of delivery army. They do pizza hut delivery only. They are fondly called ‘suicide squad’ by taxi drivers, obviously because of the way they drive to deliver with in 30 minutes.

In Uber Eats and Pickme Food, non-employee freelance riders are connecting multiple restaurants to hungry customers. It’s a rougher sea. Tech and People are needed to be in perfect symphony. Customers are getting grumpy and impatient by every passing minute. Welcome to the world of convenience driven by Gig economy.

But this convenience comes at a price. Some issues are now coming in to surface. Majority of Uber and PickMe taxi drivers I drive with are not happy. They do not get many rides as they used to, because there are many vehicles in both services.  Price per Km is fixed, even though fuel prices are in the rise ( inflation) .

It’s way too early to tell what will stick and what will not. Is Gig economy the new evil? It is easier to condemn new things as a fad. But Gig economy is here to stay. Can we make it work for betterment of every stakeholder by balancing the benefits?

A brave new wild world is waiting to happen. What do you think?