I finally had the opportunity to be a trainer for the RISTT (Rural Impact Sourcing Technical Training) Program last month. After repeated invitations from Ms Janette Toral of Digital Filipino and Jessica Madrazo of CoffeeBot, I had my first virtual assistance class in Kidapawan, North Cotabato.
I had the distinct advantage of knowing about the program, trainers and participants before I jumped into it. Knowing what to expect did make it easier to anticipate what I had to do but it’s still a lot of work.
I didn’t just teach them how to be a virtual assistant. There are free and paid courses already offer that. The RISTT Virtual Assistance is about providing the participants with skills that would make them competent virtual assistants.
And when you want to develop skills, you need to practice. That meant a lot of work on their part and regular reminders from my end. The work my participants and I had to do was made more challenging by the slow, sometimes intermittent, and at times non-existent internet connection. Until now that they’re in the process of completing their graduation requirements they’re still plagued with connectivity problems.
These issues, at first glance, might make one question the rationale behind having a program like this. What’s the point in giving businesses and individuals online skills and knowledge if there’s no infrastructure to support them.
How can they find a job, contact clients, and get paid if they don’t have the high speed internet required to get things done.
This is a valid issue. However I believe, the mere existence this program in the rural areas just might be one of the driving forces we need to speed up and spread internet connectivity all over the country.
As Above So Below
In the early days of the Philippine outsourcing industry, you would be hard pressed to find a call center outside of Metro Manila or Metro Cebu. Much less a Filipino freelancer.
It made sense for the industry to be clustered there because that’s where the infrastructure is. So setting up shop there made sense and the BPO and freelancing industry was born. And it helped the our country, a lot. BY 2006, the BPO industry became an $1.3 billion export sector by 2006 and was expected to grow by 20% per year. It was also estimated that around that time there were roughly 13,000 BPO businesses all over the country  which provided jobs for over 150,000 Filipinos .
But eventually, these cities became too expensive for smaller players and the labor market too tight. And the provinces wanted a piece of that of sweet tax pie. So to spread the wealth and sustain the growth of the industry, it became imperative to create the infrastructure to support the BPO industry in the provinces. This move helped propel the outsourcing industry from a $1.3 billion from 2006 to $22 billion in 2016.
Stable internet infrastructure has finally reached the provinces. Thanks to this move, some online workers now had the option to work and stay in the provinces they call home. Some. When a major call center plans to build a facility in your municipality, the national and local government would move heaven and earth to make that happen. But if it’s just you and a bunch of friends freelancing from home, you either have to move to the capitol or make do with really slow internet.
A handful of freelancers or a small call center isn’t a big enough market for telcos to make the effort to improve their resources. It’s not worth to invest millions if you can’t make a profit.
But through RISTT, the idea is if we could produce:
- a few hundred freelancers,
- stimulate the development of several small businesses or
- encourage larger BPOs to move to areas where they have less competition for talent and more opportunities for growth,
maybe, it could send a strong enough message to telcos that this area, this island, is worth servicing.
But is it really enough?
Too Little, Too Late
Last year, the RISTT produced 534 online Filipino workers from all over the Philippines. Graduates of the course were either absorbed by government agencies, hired by private companies, built their own businesses, or went to work as freelancers themselves .This is a great start for a program that’s only a year old and the DICT hopes to produce more for 2018. And it goes to show that limited internet connectivity isn’t a major deterrent in creating an online industry in the provinces.
But the perennially slow internet speeds isn’t the only challenge on the horizon. With artificial intelligence automating some of the services BPOs provide, we’re starting to see the industry’s growth spurt slowing down. This problem is so big, this was the focus of the 2018 PISCON. There are some in the ICT sector concerned that this program might be too little, too late. What would this mean to the thriving rural freelancing industry?
This is where the last stakeholder comes in: local businesses.
Finally Giving Back
Most Filipino freelancers are hired by clients from outside the Philippines. For years, we have gained skills and knowledge that helped business all over the world. And it was so frustrating for us not being able to apply this knowledge to help our local MSME’s. Back then there was no demand from local clients. They didn’t see the need.
But in the past 5 years, we’ve seen increasing online presence of MSME’s. These are mom-and-pop shops loved by locals and tourists alike for their homegrown charm. Your hole-in-the-wall carinderia now has a website and social media accounts. Why? Because they know that the right social media post at the right time could make them viral. And people will always, ALWAYS, want to pay for something they can post great photos with on Instagram.
Case in point, Mang Danny’s Ice Cream .
Mang Danny is a Davao institution in Roxas Boulevard. Since customers started raving about his ice cream on Facebook in 2016, he suddenly went viral. Mang Danny leveraged that post to expand his business from a single ice cream cart to selling to selling on consignment all over the city. Mang Danny’s became a distinctly Davao brand that continues to benefit from it social media fame through savvy local marketing.
MSME’s, which constitutes 90% of all business in the Philippines, have no need for AI or Big Data. What they need are reliable virtual assistants to help them market, run and grow their business. And what better help can you get than a virtual assistant who knows your product, your market, AND your community.
I think this is the ultimately the direction that the DICT wants RISTT graduates to go. To produce quality graduates that serves not only international clients but also local entrepreneurs. The hope is these graduates can help small businesses survive and thrive the global market by helping them carve a sustainable niche.
Also, with a growing pool of technologically proficient Filipinos, we now have the resource that could drive innovation. Great ideas can come from anywhere in the Philippines. You don’t need to live in Makati to be a technical wunderkind or marketing genius. By bringing these skills and tools to the provinces, we’re able to tap our greatest resource, our own people.
Burning the Midnight Oil
Before I became an RISTT trainer, I usually sleep early. But now I stay up until midnight, sometimes later, to answer my students’ questions. And yes, sometimes also on the weekends. I worry about them even when I’m working on something else. It has disrupted my well-established daily routine. But I can’t help but be inspired by how dedicated and hard-working they are. They challenge me to do better so they can do their best.
They see the potential of what this program can do for them and have started making plans for their future. They stay up late to take advantage of the slightly internet speeds at night. They work from their cellphones when they don’t have access to a laptop. They commute up to an hour by bus or van just to get to the capitol for internet access.
It’s tough but we all hang on. We do this because we know:
- With connectivity, small businesses can claim a share of the market that multinationals can’t serve.
- With connectivity, information, news and tools to improve the lives of Filipinos living in the rural areas will finally reach them.
- With connectivity, and a little bit of elbow grease, our graduates can be the catalysts for change within their community.
My RISTT trainer experience hasn’t been an easy one. It’s exhausting and at times disheartening. But when I look at my students and chat with them online, I can’t help but be inspired. They’re creating opportunities for themselves and their community. It’s been an honor to guide them every step of the way.