Reflecting on Sri Lanka’s IT and BPO industry

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Considering the crowd we saw, chances are a lot of you already know about the Reflection of Sri Lanka exhibition, which is running parallel to CHOGM, at the Folk Arts Centre in Battaramulla that is aimed at showcasing Sri Lanka’s export portfolio at its best.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQpH92lf2c8&list=UUYt3TTr5XabY5mb7r9bKg-A[/youtube]

As the promotional video promised, there were 16 large halls packed with 1000 stalls and over 700 exhibitors. While we’re fairly sure that all the halls were packed with interesting exhibits, our interest was in Hall H. Why Hall H you ask? That’s because SLASSCOM, in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Export Development Board was having a panel discussion about the IT and BPO sector, with the keynote speech being given by none other than Mr. Madu Ratnayake, Chairman of SLASSCOM.

Madu kicked off his speech by sharing a picture of Colombo at night, which to the unfamiliar eye now looks a lot like a developed city from the West and then gave a short description of Sri Lanka’s IT/BPO industry saying, local conditions and federal policies provide an excellent environment for fast growing IT/BPO industry in Sri Lanka, which took less than 15 years to become the 5th largest exporter recording a 100% growth in workforce and 182% growth in revenue.

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He then went to explain why the industry experienced such growth: Literacy and secondary enrolment rates are on a par with developed countries, which gives Sri Lanka a talent pool that is high-skilled and growing. For proof of this fact, Madu highlighted how students at the University of Moratuwa being #1 at Google’s Summer of Code for the last 7 years.

Afterwards, he mentioned that large global companies such as Acenture, Intel and HSBC were setting up operations here in Sri Lanka, since Sri Lanka offers a better environment compared to other low-cost countries, largely thanks to it’s infrastructure and of course the local talent. Further, he explained the niches which Sri Lanka specializes in when it comes to outsourcing, financial engineering and product engineering and mentioned that the focus now is working with Australia and UK, with Japan, India, Bangladesh along with emerging African countries.

When it comes to financial engineering he highlighted how Sri Lanka is globally recognized as a centre of excellence, by companies such as HSBC and Acenture. When it comes to product engineering he talked about how companies such as 99X Technology, Vitusa and IPS are here not just due to the talented workforce but also because it’s cheaper to do business here.

Madu then highlighted the achievements of Sri Lanka as an outsourcing destination, such as being ranked as #12 by IBM and recently declared as the #1 outsourcing destination by the NOA, recognizing it over Fiji and Serbia.

Concluding his speech he pointed out the goals of the IT/BPO industry which were to be reached by 2022: $5 billion revenue, 200,000 jobs with each job creating 3 more indirectly, and over 1000 start-ups because this is an industry that is not going to be led by a few businesses.

After Madu’s speech we had a panel discussion where questions were being taken from the audience, which was led by Imran Furkan, the Executive Director of SLASSCOM, with the speakers being Mano Sekaram, Vice President of SLASSCOM and CEO of 99X Technology and of course Madu himself.

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The panel discussion kicked off, with the question, “What does SLASSCOM do for start-ups?” Mano answered the question saying, SLASSCOM identifies potential start-ups and has built a substantial ecosystem for them to identify the best investors and provide mentorship as well. He also mentioned that there are many opportunities for young people with great ideas to become entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka.

Mano answering another question, also said that an IT/BPO company doesn’t need to be based in Colombo, and that they’re working with the government to improve the infrastructure. He mentioned that the 3 things an IT/BPO company needs to work effectively and open a world of opportunity are:

  • A skilled labour force
  • Good infrastructure
  • The ability to communicate and serve customers globally

He also explained, “This is an industry based on knowledge.” referring to how professionals such as lawyers and architects in Sri Lanka have a high acceptance rate today, that they can sit at home leisurely and serve foreign clients. Moving on, he mentioned that the government has done a lot in providing support to build the ecosystem for exports and today there are a lot of opportunities either as an investor or a worker.

“While the export of ICT has been heavy”, explains Mano “It is just as important to empower rural areas with the power of ICT, which in Sri Lanka has gone a long way with the Nenasala initiative.” Speaking on this point, Mano highlighted that 90% of the best talent in Sri Lanka today come from rural areas.

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Madu also answered a fair number of questions where he mentioned, “As a country we want to focus on a niche which will bring us the best return of investment”, as to why Sri Lanka is currently only focusing on working with Australia, Japan (which has a strong cultural compatibility with Sri Lanka according to Madu) and the UK, but this doesn’t mean that there is no interest to work with other countries in the future.

During the panel discussion Imran also mentioned that, generally accounting services today are outsourced even by start-ups to countries like Sri Lanka and India, with one operation managing over $3 billion worth of assets. He stated that one reason why Sri Lanka manages these operations is due to time zone which allows the operations to be easily dealt with clients from Australia and Europe, the US is also possible thanks to shifts.

Following the panel discussion, the seminar concluded with Mano thanking the audience and the Export Development Board on behalf of SLASSCOM for their tremendous support to the IT and BPO industry.

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