Upcycled Tech: How Aussie e-waste is helping Sri Lankans break out of poverty

97% of Australian homes have internet access, with an average of seven internet devices per household. Of course there's phones, tablets and laptops, but look around and you might see a Chromecast, Playstations, Fitbits, smart TVs and watches, and perhaps even a smart toaster. The internet is so ubiquitous you forget it’s hiding in the most ordinary objects, secretly animating them with an invisible connectivity to the rest of the world. 

In 2020, only 35% of Sri Lankans had access to the internet. Yes, that means most Sri Lankans lived through quarantine without Netflix (shudder), but consider the far more alarming consequences: many were unable to work from home and there was a complete halt to education in parts of the country with no access to virtual learning.

Enter Upcycled Tech, a social enterprise that delivers second-hand internet devices to help bring Sri Lanka into the digital world. Upcycled Tech was co-founded by Sri Lankan-Australian Sujan Selven after he saw the poverty-stricken Northeast province of Sri Lanka. His core vision is to uplift the country into the digital economy, and open the curtains on online employment opportunities and education.

An Upcycled Tech learning centre in the Northeast Province of Sri Lanka.

The way it works is, the Upcycled team picks up devices from homes and businesses and sends them to local IT businesses who refurbish each device and wipe their data to Department of Defence standards. These devices include desktops, tablets, routers, servers, and projectors. Upcycled Tech then uses these devices to help establish learning centres with internet connectivity for students in remote villages in Sri Lanka. Upcycled have also set up computer-literacy and programming classes, virtual English classes, and private online tutoring services for STEM-based education.

So far Upcycled Tech has created two distance learning centres with enough internet-enabled devices to give digital access to over 800 students. One year-eight student, Kajun, had never accessed an internet device until a learning centre was established. Kajun soon developed a tech-savviness that made him a ‘class captain.’ His role now is to manage devices and troubleshoot tech issues for other students and adults in the community. 

The term 'Upcycle' means to reuse discarded materials in a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. The key word here is value. These devices hold greater value in the hands of eager children who don’t have access to any internet technology. Often our old devices get thrown in a desk drawer and then seemingly disappear into the ether. The truth is 88% of computers end up in landfill and Australia generates 140,000 tonnes of e-waste every year. E-waste is growing at three times the rate of any other kind of waste and is responsible for 70% of the toxic chemicals in landfill, including lead, cadmium and mercury.

The biggest barrier to internet connectivity and digital literacy in Sri Lanka is low income, which is about $2000 Australian dollars per annum. The term digital literacy means having the digital skills needed to live, work, and learn across various digital platforms, social media, and mobile devices. In 2016, the UN Council released a non-binding resolution that declared internet access a human right. Only about 34% of the Sri Lankan population have internet-connected devices suitable for remote learning and work, and that figure drops to 21% in lower socioeconomic areas like the Northeast.

Sri Lanka has a huge debt amounting to approximately 100.08% of its GDP, says Sujan, making it difficult for the government to invest in the IT infrastructure needed to improve coverage and lower internet connection costs. 

“That’s not stopping me from what I want to do,” Sujan says. “We are always going to have issues, and it's about how we see it and how we try to solve that problem.”

Sujan guiding a tech tutorial in one of the Northeast's learning centres.

The effect of elevating Sri Lanka in the digital economy will be to allow low-income people to learn skills without having to pay for costly university degrees. The most immediate effect will be that individuals can take jobs from freelance networks like Fiverr and Upwork, for services that can be done from anywhere in an increasingly remote working landscape. 

Sujan celebrating his fifteenth birthday soon after arriving in Australia.

Sujan was inspired to start Upcycled Tech with his brother in 2018, eighteen years after coming to Australia as an asylum seeker. His family fled the Sri Lankan civil war, which raged for twenty-five years and claimed the lives of relatives and friends. Sujan’s first few years of education in Australia were difficult. He faced language difficulties and he repeated a year of high school, but eventually he went on to complete a degree in Business Administration and Management, earned a certificate in Telecommunications Engineering and recently ran as a Greens Party candidate. In 2018 he returned to Sri Lanka and saw that people in the Northeast Province were unable to meet their daily needs. Sujan realised that his background in telecommunication and love of technology could be his way to help tackle low-income in his homeland.

Sujan says that over the next 3-5 years he wants Upcycled Tech to help at least 50% of the Northeast with internet connectivity and access to devices. In 10 years, he wants to see 99% of Sri Lanka connected to the internet. 

“The hope, of course, is to also gradually expand,” he says. “We’d love to start these initiatives in other South Asian countries.”

There is no silver bullet to solve the issues of low-income and internet connectivity in Sri Lanka, but companies like Upcycled Tech help close the digital divide and level the playing field for jobs and education.

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If you are interested in improving digital literacy, education, and employment opportunities for disadvantaged people in Sri Lanka, you or your company can donate your e-waste devices by contacting Upcycled Tech. They will refurbish each donated device to be used in education centres in Sri Lanka. This saves money on e-waste disposal, supports the environment and helps vulnerable people. You can also contact Upcycled Tech about collaborating or volunteering.