Project Outlines Different Path to Development

After her mother fell sick, Khive Rotha considered herself lucky to have found work at a garment factory—a job that sometimes paid $80 a month. But it also came with 14-hour days, harsh bosses and expensive, cross-town motorbike taxi rides that cut into her salary.

After two years, the 21-year-old quit. Tired of the difficult conditions at the factory, she began taking computer courses to improve her chances of getting hired for an office job.

Now she has found that job, a job that could signal Cambodia’s entry into a world where computers and the Internet, and not the labor-intensive garment industry, are used to create new jobs.

A week ago, Khive Rotha and 19 other Cambodians started work at Digital Divide Data Entry, a philanthropic organization that will use the Internet, the English language and the computer skills of Cambodia’s ambitious youth to provide basic information services to US and Canadian corporations.

For $50 a month, Khive Rotha works six hours a day and has health care benefits, free Internet access and free English lessons.

“It is better to work in an office,” she said with a smile Wednes­day, when the organization celebrated its opening.

Many have long questioned how technology can help the world’s poorest countries and close the information gap—known as the digital divide—that exists between the developed and developing countries.

To that end, business consultant Jeremy Hockenstein, one of the founders of Digital Divide Data Entry, said Cambodia should concentrate on a new strategy among developing countries to focus on attracting information technology businesses, rather than factories that produce clothing or other goods. With Internet technology and a wide knowledge of English, Hockenstein said, it is possible to do “light computing work” in Cambodia, and create a lot of jobs with it.

For their first projects, Digital Divide Data Entry employees will type in documents, a simple task that requires only typing skills and a basic knowledge of English. They are currently working on a $30,000 contract to input more than 100 years of archives of the Harvard University newspaper. Once completed, the work can be sent to the US via e-mail.

Such businesses exist in India, where English is in wide use. Large corporations like General Electric, American Express, Amazon.com and British Airways save money by hiring workers at low salaries to answer e-mails and telephone calls from customers who have questions or problems that can easily be solved. The calls are routed across the world through high-speed fiber optic cables.

Indians are given language training to gain an American or British accent. Sometimes they are even given fake names and family histories, leading customers to think they are calling the Midwestern US instead of another hemisphere.

“Cambodia’s secret weapon is that young Cambodians seem really determined to learn English, which is different than in Thailand and Vietnam. It is a real advantage,” said Tony Knowles of Enterprise Development Cambodia.

Until now, information technology in Cambodia has been about the mechanics of bringing information in through the Internet, according to Bill Herod, coordinator of the Cambodia Information Project at NGO Forum and an adviser to Khmer Internet Development Services. Only a few years ago, Internet cafes were charging $8 an hour and connections were unreliable.

But with Internet connections that are faster and cheaper, Cambodia is ready to go a step further and bring in income through the Internet, Herod said.

“Because of the cross-checking and spell-checking, they don’t need to really understand what they are reading,” Herod said of the Digital Divide’s Harvard project. “They just have to read it correctly.”

For Digital Divide Data Entry, India’s service industry is a model. Earlier this year, the organization sent its three Cambodian managers to train in New Delhi at CyberData, a data entry company that has developed software and given advice to Digital Divide Data Entry.

Since it worked in India, “there is no reason why it couldn’t work here,” Knowles said.

And if Digital Divide runs out of work, CyberData will send projects here, although Hockenstein says he is confident that the organization will get more contracts through marketing efforts in the US.

The idea for Digital Divide was born after Hockenstein, 30, visited Cambodia a few years ago, when he had become inspired by the young people who flock each evening to Phnom Penh’s English language and computer schools. “So many Cambodians are putting so much effort into learning computers,” he said. “But there are no jobs.”

With three friends—all of whom have experience with either information technology or running non-profit organizations in the US, Canada and several developing countries—Hockenstein created a business plan for Digital Divide Data Entry.

Cambodian government officials are eager for projects like Digital Divide. With about 80 percent of national exports coming from the garment sector, officials have been desperate to diversify the country’s industries, but have had little luck so far. Cambodia’s $1 billion garment industry includes about 200 factories that employ about 150,000 workers.

But about the same number of Cambodians, products of the baby boom of the early 1980s, become adults every year. The challenge for Cambodia is find jobs for them, and that may mean attracting investors in information technology, Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh said.

“We have been trying to encourage the private schools that teach computers,” he said. “Cambodia has the human resources, but we need to open the market for people to come and set up their businesses.”

Staff supervisor Iv Sovannary said Digital Divide Data Entry hopes to raise salaries to $65 a month and hire more employees in the next few months, but that depends on the ability of Hockenstein and his friends to quickly persuade more companies to send their work to Cambodia.

But that doesn’t stop Hockenstein from talking big.

He wants to expand to rural villages and return profits to the workers. He wants to hire more disabled people, on top of the 10 hired last month from Wat Than. He wants to hire more women and more poor people. And he wants to expand from data entry to more complicated tasks, like creating Web pages and Power Point presentations and fulfilling customer service requests through e-mail.

“Cambodia should become a full partner in the technology revolution,” said Hockenstein. “The typists of today can become the programmers of tomorrow.”

 

 

 

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