Compiled by Ayesha Reza Rafiq
AI NATION IN THE MAKING
Jeevan Gnanam identifies the data sciences as a means to grow IT exports
Q: Could you describe Sri Lanka’s standing as a regional hub for knowledge and innovation?
A: It is reasonably good. What’s encouraging and exciting about the future is the real potential to develop as a strong player in this field.
To put this in perspective, Sri Lanka’s annual business process management (BPM) exports currently amount to around US$ 1.2 billion. In the main, this has been achieved through organic growth with very little focus on strategic marketing and growth.
With the launch of the National Export Strategy (NES), the government has provided the IT industry with access to funds to utilise for focussed growth. We have a target of growing the BPM export sector to five billion dollars annually in 2022. This is a respectable number – and it is achievable.
Q: What are the broad marketing initiatives required to facilitate this growth?
A: Outbound missions paired with matchmaking play a major role in taking the Sri Lankan brand to the world. Traditionally, the UK and Australia have been Sri Lanka’s focus markets but it must now look further afield – to Japan and the US, as well as Scandinavian nations – to tap the growing market potential in new destinations.
There is a need to increase our outbound marketing efforts. To this end, the recent rebranding of Sri Lanka as an ‘Island of Ingenuity’ is a positive step that we must expand on.
With this brand in mind, we’re forming partnerships with sister organisations such as the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) in India, IKT-Norge in Norway and the Japan Information Industry Association (JISA). Through such collaborations, we could promote ourselves, which in turn will benefit the country.
More inland missions to Sri Lanka will offer representatives from potential new markets a firsthand view of our abilities and potential in the knowledge and innovation sectors.
Q: What support structures are needed to take the industry forward?
A: For small businesses or startups, incubators and accelerators are needed. While activity in these areas is in its infancy, there’s a degree of acceleration. Sri Lanka has an opportunity to brand itself as a startup nation and these support structures play an important part in this. For example, Hatch grew out of a need identified by the Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM). This has its roots in a startup report on affordable workspace and accelerators two years ago.
Initiatives such as SLASSCOM’s ‘Champion Builder’ programme with the NES are steps in this direction but they focus on larger companies. The programme identifies companies with an annual income of roughly US$ 2 million or more – and it helps them increase traction as well as double their business by providing funds for matchmaking and other knowledge inputs.
Q: What is the main challenge in promoting a more startup friendly environment?
A: Sourcing followup funding for startups poses a challenge – i.e. funding for Series B and above where venture capitalists (VCs) will typically participate. We currently have one or two serious VC firms in Sri Lanka and this isn’t sufficient to create a vibrant startup ecosystem.
There is a need for major changes in legislation to enable funds to set up in Sri Lanka and raise money. If this doesn’t transpire, it will be difficult for startups to remain in Sri Lanka – and consequently, we will lose them to the likes of Singapore that offer more attractive incentives.
Q: In which areas could more potential be developed?
A: So far, Sri Lanka has relied heavily on software development and products for the financial services industry. There is potential to develop and market the country’s capability in data science and AI to rebrand Sri Lanka as an AI nation.
Q: How could this become a reality?
A: We must create more capacity and thought leadership, and promote knowledge and innovation, as they are the future. Every industry and company will need to innovate, and go digital, to maintain a footprint.
Moreover, we need to efficiently leverage the opportunities afforded by FTAs to build bridges, exchange knowledge and information, and forge partnerships, so that Sri Lanka benefits from a more global perspective and footprint.
Skilled immigration is another aspect of development that must be considered. There are vital skills that the country doesn’t possess in the AI and data science fields, and we stand to benefit from importing these skills.
Especially as the country is in its infancy in this field, strong leadership and strategic guidance are vital to build a solid foundation.