Uki: the coding accelerator unlocking infinite possibilities in Jaffna

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“Let’s build a startup accelerator here in Jaffna,” they said. Entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka is on the rise after all. Startups are popping out of the woodwork and the successful ones are disrupting the market. But after a while, they realized that this was only in Colombo. Places like Jaffna have yet to hit that critical mass. As such, it made little sense to build a startup accelerator at this point of time. So they went back to the drawing board and said, “Let’s build a coding accelerator instead!” This time the outlook was more promising and so the Yarl IT Hub alongside the SERVE Foundation began taking their first steps to build Uki.

What is Uki and how does it work?

Uki is a coding accelerator in Jaffna run by the Yarl IT Hub alongside the SERVE Foundation. To understand the mission of Uki, one first needs to understand the problem that it aims to solve. Both the Yarl IT Hub and the SERVE foundation noticed that many students who passed their A/L’s and were passionate about IT were being left behind. The root cause of this was the lack of money to join a private institution to earn a degree, which prevented them from eventually joining the industry. Yet, the IT industry has an unending demand for labor. Thus, Uki was born to help these passionate students in Jaffna join the IT industry or build their own startup.

Uki is a coding accelerator for underprivileged passionate students in Jaffna (Image credits: Uki)
Uki is a coding accelerator for underprivileged passionate students in Jaffna (Image credits: Uki)

So how does it work? The program runs for a period of six months. Currently, the first intake of Uki has a small number students. When they initially opened applications, they found 43 applicants. Many of these applicants were women – the ones who needed it the most as they greatly lacked opportunities. Thus, after a long and rigorous selection process, the decision was made to accept 15 students into the first intake of Uki.

Over the course of the program, these 15 students will face lessons that cover four main areas. These four areas are:

  1. Fullstack development: The program trains students to create an entire system from start to finish. This is similar to what you’d find as final year projects in a normal degree. Currently, they’re timing this along with the Yarl Geek Challenge Senior so the students can pitch their projects then.
  2. Communication: In the IT industry, good communication skills and a strong command of English are essential. Thus, the British Council of Jaffna has stepped in to offer training to the students to help them improve their communication skills.
  3. Exposure to business: It’s expected that a few of these students might become entrepreneurs or join startups one day. As such, the program sees the students being exposed to different aspects of businesses to encourage entrepreneurship.
  4. Personal coaching: The program also assigns a mentor to each students. These students meet with their mentors on a one-on-one basis. The purpose of these meetings is to encourage students to become lifelong learners.

The primary goal of this program is to ensure that students learn the skills corporates need. To that end, this syllabus is updated for each successive batch by a panel from the industry. Furthermore, they are signing up corporates and startups as partners and encourage their corporate partners to conduct workshops so that students know what’s required by the industry. Once the program ends, the Yarl IT Hub with its corporate partners, aims to give the students internship opportunities. The Yarl IT Hub shared with us that they’re seeking internships at the moment as they feel it doesn’t give the companies a heavy cost. Furthermore, the goal of Uki is to simply help its student take their first step into the IT industry – not become CEO’s of a Fortune500 company.

A few scenes from a Uki class
A few scenes from a Uki class

But how much does all this cost each student? Not a single penny. Every student that’s accepted into the program is done so on a scholarship. However, the Yarl IT Hub team constantly reminds them from Day 01 that Uki isn’t a free course. The students are told that someone else is bearing the costs to give them a chance to learn. Thus, it is their responsibility to get the fullest of this opportunity and help others enter the industry in the future.

Behind the scenes: The people behind Uki

The journey to build Uki was a long one that began early last year. Over the years, the Yarl IT Hub has been carrying out various initiatives as part of its mission to make Jaffna the next Silicon Valley. But they had become impatient and started brainstorming as to how they could speed up this process. They wanted to increase the number of startups. Thus, they thought of launching a startup incubator until they realized that it wasn’t solution. Then as members of the Yarl IT Hub began discussing things again over a Skype call, the idea for a coding accelerator was born.

A rough idea was in place, and with it a pitch deck was made. Armed with this pitch deck, they began looking for people to run the accelerator, a place to conduct classes, and creating a syllabus. This process was a rollercoaster of challenges. In the initial days, many people were asked to join and agreed to do so, but then suddenly disappeared later on. Similarly, just when they thought they had found the necessary funding to kick start the project, it too would suddenly disappear. Alas, even finding a proper location was a saga.

From L to R: Vithushan Vijayaratnami, Dharsika Paramasothy, Mathangie Selvarajah (Image credits: Uki)
From L to R: Vithushan Vijayaratnami, Dharsika Paramasothy, Mathangie Selvarajah (Image credits: Uki)

Fast forward one entire year and after a long string of failures the Yarl IT Hub finally had everything they needed to begin accepting students. They found the ideal location inside a building in Nallur, Jaffna. The British Council had come on board to teach English to the students. But most importantly, they had now found the right people to run Uki. These people were Vithushan Vijayaratnam – Director of Uki, Dharsika Paramasothy –Lecturer of the Program, and Mathangie Selvarajah – Managing Director of Noro Solutions as the mentor and coach for the students and other Yarl IT Hub volunteers contributing on part time basis. Once the people were in place, they shortlisted applicants and began lessons. Thus, Uki was born on the 17th of April 2017.

Where Uki plans to go in the future.

Currently, the Yarl IT Hub has a goal of ensuring that 80% of Uki students get an opportunity to enter the IT industry. It’s a daunting task, which has them tensed. Nonetheless, they’re pushing themselves to achieve this goal. As such, they’re doing everything they can to equip the students with everything they would need.

Where does Uki hope to go next? Islandwide (Image credits: Uki)
Where does Uki hope to go next? Islandwide (Image credits: Uki)

Uki is still in its early stages but it’s showing great promise. Thus, the Yarl IT Hub wants to scale it further. In the near future, the Yarl IT Hub hopes to increase the number of students to 20 or 25 students per class in two or three years. Furthermore, they want to have three locations where multiple batches of Uki students are taught. Eventually, they hope to produce 120 students per year and see the program duplicated across the island.

Needless to say, it’s a massive dream. Nonetheless, we have faith in the Yarl IT Hub because over the years they’ve taken many important steps to help build the startup ecosystem of the Northern Province. It might take a while for Uki to scale. But right now, this simple coding accelerator maybe the key needed to unlock the infinite possibilities of the IT industries for its passionate students that have nowhere else to go. And that, deserves respect. Hopefully, we will see Uki scale in the future and open up opportunities for even more passionate students in the coming years.

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