Rural Knowledge Centers of Sri Lanka
 

Colombo Fort Railway Station Nanasala:
Innovative Location, Innovative Services

Colombo Fort Nenasala
An 'A' Level student, Miss Alisa, uses Colombo Fort Telecentre regularly to keep in touch with friends in Sri Lanka and abroad. She can watch for her train even as she checks her emails.

Lionel Jayasuriya, a businessman from Panadura, is one among tens of thousands of rail commuters who daily disembark at Colombo Fort Railway Station and fan out to offices and shops across the heart of Colombo. Most commuters, however, would be surprised to learn that Lionel, and others like him, actually conduct their core business activities from a pocket-sized 'virtual office' upon Platform 5-6.

Strategically situated in Colombo Fort Railway Station, the hub of Sri Lanka's railway system, Colombo Fort Telecentre is a short stroll from government ministries and the country's largest wholesale business district. The only one of Sri Lanka's 587 Telecentres licensed and custom designed to operate within a railway station, it is a beehive of social and commercial activity, both by its patrons and by N. Vijayaratnam, a visionary entrepreneur who foresaw the potential of positioning an e-commerce hub within a bustling transportation hub.

"Before I started, I first studied the activities of other Telecentres," says Vijay, as his friends known him. "I realized most of them had IT courses as their sole source of revenue. All were competing with commercial institutes and with each other."

A Telecentre had already been established at Fort Railway Station, yet despite a unique location with daily exposure to ceaseless crowds of travelers, it was struggling. Vijay believed he could turn the Telecentre into a commercial success by combining its unique location with an intuitive sense of 21st Century business trends.

"Our Telecentre's location on a railway platform meant space was at a premium, with no room for IT classes. Like this, I weighed our location against the endless reasons why such a multitude of people pour through this railway station daily."

"With few exceptions, people come by rail to Colombo Fort with some business activity in mind. They are coming to make business connections, either to sell or to buy goods and services. So I decided to distinguish Colombo Fort Telecentre from other telecentres through a single-minded focus on business and commerce. Our Telecentre serves businesses and business people."

Colombo Fort Nenasala
With real estate as its main revenue stream, Colombo Fort Telecentre is now an increasingly popular and commercially viable enterprise.

"Operating the smallest telecentre at the most strategic point in Sri Lanka, I realized that this should be a virtual commercial gateway operating within the physical gateway of Colombo Fort Railway Station. After careful research I decided to go into real estate trade in the cyber sphere, a business activity untouched by other telecentres."

At first Vijay had to depend on email and online advertising. Customers began to respond and some were from abroad. Friends helped him to develop a professional website (www.colombofort.com) serving the Colombo Fort business community, and a separate website (www.realtorlanka.com) displaying local real estate property listings globally. He encouraged people to list their properties and was thus able to connect buyers with sellers online. Without resorting to tedious travel, people in the market for real estate can browse listings online, view photos and survey plans, and negotiate deals with less overhead costs than with conventional real estate agencies.

With real estate as its main revenue stream, Colombo Fort Telecentre is now an increasingly popular and commercially viable enterprise. But real estate is not its only business service. Entry-level business people, and those who just need a convenient 'virtual office' in the heart of Colombo's commercial district, frequent the Telecentre to learn how to use ICT in their business, whether with search engines like Google, or scanning and sending documents abroad by e-mail, or using Voice Over Internet applications like Skype to make affordable international calls.

"Nowadays everyone conducts business from mobile phones," observes Vijay. "We take our office, our business, wherever we go. Modern business is moving from 'brick' to 'click', from costly fixed structures towards a flexible and versatile 24-hour presence on the Internet. Business people—ladies and gents alike—are quick to recognize the commercial advantages. And our Telecentre is well positioned to help business people to climb onboard and avail themselves of all these simple but powerful tools."

"Our regular visitors typically drop in daily or several times each week to check their e-mail, to print out laser-quality documents, to do online research for themselves or for friends or family members who are abroad or going abroad, and to consult with me or my staff. We welcome anyone—business people, teachers, students, tourists—but we aim for quality of service to our clients rather than for a large number of casual users."

The Station Master, Mr. Sarath Pathirana, agrees that Colombo Fort Telecentre—like Sri Lanka Railways itself—is performing a yeoman service to all commuters and all communities, and helps to promote all three national languages. "Although this Telecentre concerns itself more with commerce," he says, "it also provides civic amenities like improved communications, educational tools, and easier access to government services. We also use the Telecentre officially and privately."

The Telecentre movement is unleashing the power of ICT in ways that that are improving the lives of uncounted people. Even without big budget advertising, innovative social entrepreneurs like Vijayratnam are today's pioneers, the leading edge of change in the way people form the social and business networks that are creating a better tomorrow.