Published: | Sri Lanka

A Garden of Opportunity: Yarl IT Hub

Reflections about Yarl IT Hub, a grass roots organisation doing great work in Jaffna and Northern Sri Lanka

The soil in Sri Lanka is so fertile you can cast a seed on the ground and it will grow. The same can be said of the young minds I found working with the Yarl IT Hub in the Northern Province. Yarl IT Hub has been going for 6 years, having grown organically from an online community to a proactive group expanding its operations and ambitions continuously.

After my second visit I planted an idea into their Facebook group, and 6 months later I was presented with 2 solutions to the problem I had outlined.

This is a space where new ideas can flourish, so I encourage you to contribute to this community remotely, and provide them with new opportunities to grow.

The idea in question was inspired from my visit to Dambhula and Anuradhapura.

The first I visited and had to carry my backpack and luggage up the mountain, the second I booked myself into a hotel and then realised there was no other reason to be there after visiting the temple. What I really needed was a space to store my bags while I visited the tourist site, and then to hop on to a city or another attraction.

I outlined the opportunity in the facebook group, and forgot about it.

This year it was my privilege to attend the Yarl Geek Challenge as a Mentor, Judge and to help with the Documentation.

Reflections fro YGC 6

It gave me great insights into the success of this community, which I will go into later. I was also pleasantly surprised to see 2 separate business solutions addressing the problem I outlined.

The 1st was an Airbnb for bags model, with opportunities for showers, socks, umbrellas and packed lunches (hats and shoes are forbidden in holy spaces, yet you still have to manage hot rocks and intense sunshine). This idea was from a group from UKI. UKI is another initiative from Yarl IT Hub — a 6 month intensive course in IT, with complimentary soft skills development.

The team from UKI, present their project.

On my first visit to UKI students were so shy it was a challenge to even get them to speak, yet here they were on stage. Speaking confidently and defending their ideas to the panel. Yet still open to new inputs and criticism — as one judge and investor

Bahirathan Kanesu from the Lankan Angel Network commented:

“that you respond quickly to feedback, means you will respond quickly to the market.”

From ideas, to feedback, the Jaffna Youth are eager to grow and adapt to the new opportunities they find.”

The 2nd group were Yarl Geek Challenge Alumni — Senzmate, already funded on 1 startup who’ve grown from 10-16 employees in 2017 for their IoT start up, and now back with a new project. Their system was an IoT locker system, complete with production quality prototypes.

Senzmate present their automated locker system.

The Yarl Geek Challenge differs from other startup events I’ve experienced with its depth of engagement. Whilst it culminates in a 2 day sprint before the semi final, teams form well in advance of the challenge and get access to each other through the community. Then there is a period of mentoring and reflection prior to the final in Columbo.

Uthaya Thayasivam tries on zonar based glasses for the blind from year 11/12 Chavakachcheri Hindu College whilst judging Yarl Geek Challenge juniors. An 8th grader from St.John’s College designed a similar system, but put it on a hat.

 

Yarl IT Hub reaches out to schools through the Yarl Geek Junior Challenge, and provides mentoring and learning opportunities for Young Kids in Open Source Hardware, Web, and Mobile App programming.

Students demo their home automation system with GSM technology for Yarl Geek Challenge Junior, in this demo lights were switched on/off by calling mobile number.
A Grade 11 student from Rambaikulam Girls’ Maha Vidyalayam, Vavuniya demonstrates her SmartGarden module.
An Android phone controlled remote controlled car from Grade 11 students of Vavuniya Tamil Madhya Maha Vidyalayam,Vavuniya

 

The standard of ideas from the kids is often more exciting than from the older group, as the kids are less limited by the idea of commercialisation. This playful space, creates more opportunities for them to explore new ideas and opportunities. They reach over 600 kids in the Northern Province a year.

I visited the schools and students with Yarl IT Hub. My first visit I met withover 100 students and teachers, who’d come in on a holiday day to participate. The schools were in diverse areas, with different demographics and surrounding environments.

Every year, the students surprise judges and mentors alike with the quality of their work.

Through the Yarl Geek Senior challenge they do the same with Universities and others.

Through this and other activities the community begins to grow, and alumni join the community to contribute as mentors and sponsors. Slowly but surely the community develops. In now has 150+ volunteers each year for the Geek Challenge and over 2,700 members.

These projects are just some of the activities from the community, whose long term objective is to mix the culture, and rich landscape of Northern Sri Lanka, with the Technology and Entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley.

You will note, that I haven’t mentioned any names of individuals so far. This is a conscious choice and out of respect for the community as a whole. As it is a community of equals working to create this dream. If you want to get in touch with Yarl IT hub to get involved, you can reach them here (Insert prefered email or facebook contact).

I can relate to this concern, as journalists can often seek the “Hero” of the story, when the Hero is the Community. I have myself experienced this difficulty, and no amount of protest, will prevent them from telling the story how they wish. The Hero of Yarl IT Hub is the community, so let us talk about the community and what it has achieved.

Yarl IT Hub emerged out of a passion for education, against a cultural background of puzzle solving. A facebook group, quickly grew into an active community. The community doesn’t have the hindrance of legacy technology, and it’s leapfrogging forward to explore new technologies. Already there are community led projects exploring verticulture and blockchain technologies — working on startups as a means of learning about the technology.

Yarl IT Hub’s approach is very much focused on the long game, which I find deeply refreshing. NGO’s and businesses are more oriented around short term metrics and cycles. Yarl IT are the community investing in itself. They have skin in the game, and community level insights that outside entities seeking to get involved in the region would do well to listen to. Their thinking spans decades, and they are reaching out to the generation that will follow them. Many are based in Columbo, wanting to create a space they would be able to move back to and work in. They are working to build a future they can inhabit.

There is a tremendous energy here in the youth, similar to that I experienced in Egypt between revolutions. The energy unleashed when there is the possibility of a future. It’s this energy that Yarl IT Hub is harnessing and channelling to great effect.

It’s still early days, and within the culture they have to convince not just the new generation, but their families. Their approach is steady and sensitive to cultural considerations. Finding the gaps, and creating new opportunities to fill them.

A great great example of this is UKI. Yarl IT Hub identified that there was a gap in the market to work with Students, and people from backgrounds who didn’t have the opportunities to get into University. They established UKI as a 6 month course in IT and soft skills.

UKI brings together a diverse group to learn together, from different caste structures and regions. The first group was 70% women.

But for gender balance within the community, Yarl is not content, and has established Cuter to proactively engage more women within the community.

During the Yarl Geek Challenge, the female attendees were often seen holding court (although shy of the camera), with some all female groups competing. One mentor commented that the women were often better speakers and more assured.

Yarl IT Hub has added IT and entrepreneurship to many family’s vocabulary, and is steadily working to increase the opportunities that Jaffna women will be able to explore.

The feeling of the community is familial, supportive and strengthening. During the Yarl Geek Challenge the whole community filmed a 21st birthday greeting surprise for the community’s social media manager. They provide a critical emotional foundation to explore new ways of being and finding their way in the world.

Such foundation can only come from an authentic community, it cannot be managed. It is this that constitutes a critical foundation of Yarl IT Hub’s magic. A community at play, learning, building and propeling each other forward.

Group shot from YGC final, showing a small fraction of the community and their supporters and beneficiaries.

 

GIZ’s engagement with Yarl IT Hub also warrants praise. They have enabled me to serve Yarl IT Hub under direction of the community, and their support has been sensitive to local needs, helping in ways the community have identified without creating excessive overheads or burdens of deliverables upon the community. GIZ is setting a great example with their engagement with them.

Yarl IT Hub is growing their ambition, and increasing their impact. They are now looking to build on their success and increase their impact by 10x by 2022.

To get involved by contributing time, knowledge or financial support with Yarl IT Hub:

Contact them here: Yarl IT Hub on TC

For their vision and opportunities in their own words, click here.

Finally, I offer my sincere gratitude to Yarl IT Hub for the opportunity to experience and contribute to their community. To the GIZ for providing the material means for me to do so and for Ivan at Brand Me for helping to tell their stories on video.

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