Empowering Rural Youth- volunteering at the Mahawilachchiya Rural BPO.

By Lahari Jayawardena

Upon being inducted into the 2015/2016 JKH Management Trainee Program, we were instructed that as a new addition to the program, we would each have to get involved in an ongoing CSR initiative conducted by the John Keells Foundation (JKF). After considering the available options, I decided to get involved in the Mahavilachchiya Rural BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) Project.

Set up in the year 2007 in collaboration with JKF and Foundation for Advancing Rural Opportunity (FARO) with the objective of providing sustainable employment opportunities to rural youth, the Mahavilachchiya BPO – named “OnTime” – was the first of three BPOs initiated by JKF, with the other two consequently being set up in Seenigama and Jaffna.

In 2015, it was identified that OnTime required Administrative and HR process improvements and this was to be the focus of my project. To begin with, I accompanied a member from FARO to Mahavilachchiya to familiarize myself with operations there, to observe the processes in practice and also, to get to know the associates. We were able to have one-on-one chats with a majority of them, hearing their grievances and challenges and proving them with possible solutions.

This first visit was a truly enlightening experience for me as it opened my eyes to the stark contrast in lifestyles these individuals led and how a vast majority of talented youth go unnoticed in Sri Lanka due to the lack of opportunities in rural areas. However, it was very encouraging to see that an increasing number of them were pursuing their higher education in the hope of a better future. Following the visit, I documented all my observations and recommendations which were forwarded to JKF and FARO and taken up for implementation.

The next item on the agenda was the Rural BPO get-together organized by JKF and Infomate which is held annually for associates across the three BPOs. This year, the event was held at Cinnamon Lakeside on the 6th of February 2016 with 32 associates in attendance along with personnel from JKF and FARO. I assisted JKF with coordinating the various activities for the event which included a celebration of successes and review of progress, a self-development workshop on discipline, commitment and motivation, a team building session with leadership activities followed by lunch and fellowship. The event was a success with all the associates having an enjoyable and value adding morning.

The next trip to Mahavilachchiya was based on my recommendation of having more regular visits to OnTime so as to be in touch with on-going operations and it proved to be an extremely fruitful visit, with many issues that needed to be addressed being brought to the table during individual chats with each associate. We were also able to implement some of the recommendations put forward following our previous visit.

One such issue that needed to be addressed was regarding the security of associates driven by a few incidents in the area. Owing to OnTime having a female dominated cadre with the exception of one male, the search for a more gender-balanced workforce was identified as being necessary and the need to conduct programs on safety and Gender Based Violence (GBV) for the associates was deemed essential. Therefore, the next activity I got involved in coordinating for OnTime was in line with Project WAVE (Working Against Violence through Education),   another ongoing project conducted by JKF.

Two external trainers who work regularly with JKF – Kumari Witharana and Velusamy Weerasingham – were briefed on the need for such a program at OnTime and two customized sessions were conducted on site for the associates and their families to create awareness and prevent GBV. The program proved to be very insightful with many of the attendees expressing their appreciation and keenness to spread the word. As a way forward, it is recommended that these sessions are conducted on a larger scale starting at a village level.

So far, this journey has been nothing but fulfilling. I have learned many life lessons that I will be sure to carry forward with me and I look forward to working on many projects such as these that are sure to make a difference!