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Summer 2011, Vol. 14, No. 3
Class Notes: Alumni News

Vision in Action: Charting a Course for Success in Sri Lanka

Harsha de Silva
    Harsha de Silva

“I came to the United States knowing nothing and this was really the change in my life,” says Harsha de Silva (’89) who traveled to America from Sri Lanka at the age of 19 to pursue a higher education and then went on to become a well-respected development economist, entrepreneur, talk show host and most recently, a member of Parliament in Sri Lanka.

De Silva graduated from Truman with a bachelor of science in business management in 1989, and after earning his MA and PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1993, he returned to Sri Lanka. Accepting a position as an economist for DFCC Bank, then Sri Lanka’s largest development bank, he quickly advanced to become the bank’s chief economist and treasurer.

Passing up an opportunity to eventually become the CEO at DFCC Bank, de Silva decided to venture out on his own. With a small loan, a cash advance on his credit card, and some money borrowed from his father, de Silva co-founded a market and socioeconomic research agency, and in a few short years, it became the largest market research company in Sri Lanka. In 2000, de Silva sold his share of the company to VNU, the parent company of The Nielsen Company, a large international market research company.

Continuing his work in economic development, de Silva became an international consultant traveling to countries, such as Nepal and Pakistan, where he would engage with governments and work on their behalf on developmental issues. That’s when he saw how technology, especially the fast-growing use of mobile phones, was changing things in that part of the world, and he recognized an opportunity for using it to improve people’s lives.

“Say 10 percent of the people may have a bank account but 80 percent may have a mobile phone…how do you help get these guys into the formal financial system; is it by a bank setting up another branch or is it by getting the bank on your phone,” says de Silva. Getting the bank on cell phones was easier and less costly, so he looked for ways to implement that concept.

In the meantime, de Silva also worked on developing an agricultural exchange in Sri Lanka. “I found it very odd that the largest wholesale agricultural produce market in Sri Lanka didn’t have what I call in economics an efficient price discovery mechanism, like an auction,” says de Silva. While there was a market on 12 acres of land, the farmers in the area didn’t know the market price of their commodities or when the prices were moving up or down.

At the time, a wireless networking technology, Wi-Fi, was just emerging, and de Silva got a license from the Sri Lankan government to put up a 12-acre Wi-Fi zone in the market area. He received a grant to set up the technology needed to collect data and send the information out to farmers in nearby areas using Wi-Fi. That was about nine years ago, and today, Govi Gnana Seva (GGS), an innovative agricultural knowledge service that de Silva funded and implemented, is used by an inclusive trade information exchange by the nation’s largest mobile telecom operator, called Tradenet, which recently won a World Summit Award, an award that the industry considers the equivalent of an Oscar award.

Subsequently de Silva joined a think tank consisting of people with interest in technology and development and has been working in around ten Asian countries from India to Indonesia as well as six African countries from Kenya to Malawi becoming an authority on mobile technology and broader economic development.

Around that time, de Silva developed an interest in politics and began writing on the topic. Before long, he was receiving invitations to appear on television debates that took place during elections in Sri Lanka. This in turn led to a four-year stint as a host on his own television talk show that featured guests discussing development economics and public policy.

Although de Silva had never planned on going into politics, colleagues encouraged him to take a more active role, and he has been serving as a member of the Parliament in Sri Lanka since April 2010. He is now the chief opposition spokesperson on economics issues and has become a vociferous campaigner for greater economic freedom for the people of Sri Lanka. As a recipient of one of the Eisenhower Fellowships awarded to emerging global leaders de Silva recently had a chance to travel around the U.S. to look at how think tanks and academics on one hand and politicians and the media on the other hand work to implement policy. De Silva says he can see how all these groups are necessary to have a vibrant intellectual debate, and he wants to promote the idea of greater discussion and debate within the framework that they have in Sri Lanka’s parliament before new laws are enacted.

“There are lots of little things I would like to work on, but the big picture is the freedom, democracy and equal opportunity--if you can build a society on those foundations, then it will be a sustainable and successful society” says de Silva, who predicts a very bright future for Sri Lanka.

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