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Evolving the mobile lady of Bangladesh

Jul 03, 2008

Bangladesh’s mobile lady is the last-mile solution to take livelihood information to the poor and marginalised. In its evolution to the Info Lady, she is making high-end information available in a cheaper and effective way.

The poverty of information or the lack of access to information is one of the main causes of poverty.

In Bangladesh, villagers often lack information that can help improve their livelihoods. The poor do not generally have access to current information resources. They do not own TV or radio; they cannot buy newspapers; and in fact most of them do not know how to even read papers.

They do not also have adequate access to government extension services. Even ICT kiosks or telecentres, though successful in various parts of the world, did not provide a direct solution. It was apparent that what was needed was a combination of technology and human interface in an imaginative fashion that would bridge the gap between the people and new ICTs.

Creating the mobile lady

An impending need to create a comprehensive and responsive platform that bears a human-friendly interface, networks community people and fosters accessibility and interactive communication led to the creation of the ‘Mobile Lady’.

The emphasis is on the female gender owing to its cultural context. In Bangladeshi households, a woman has easy access to others’ houses and can communicate with the house members.

Mobile Lady.jpg

Mobile phones have a higher penetration in Bangladesh than fixed land phones. Estimated to cover 85 percent of the territory, they are cheaper to make calls. Also mobile services are popular in most parts of the country including rural areas.

Following the global ICT boom and some successful applications in development, in 2004, a young team at D.Net (Development Research Network), Bangladesh, worked on expanding the access of new ICTs to rural areas. The team decided to explore the value addition rendered by mobile phones as well as the quantum of use and application of mobile telephony as information service in Bangladesh.

To decipher the functional effectiveness of mobile telephony in rural areas, D.Net conducted a field research to explore new initiatives and ideas to deliver livelihood information through mobiles.

D. Net identified key ingredients to make a helpline for the poor: The Mobile lady; a help desk with a searchable knowledge base in Bangla (the official language of Bangladesh); a directory database to refer the users to service providers; and partners including local, national or international organisations.

Once questions are put to the help desk, an associate at the service end – usually a domain expert – answers the query using the special computerised knowledge base created by D.Net. To make information easily understood, both the database and the search engine are in local language Bangla.
Most frequently asked queries are about where to access certain services. The help desk expert searches an online directory, created through an extensive and rigorous survey, and suggests relevant options. The users pay for the phone call only.

Requisite information can also be retrieved dynamically from the telecentres’ offline livelihood content which is stored in the PC at the telecentre.

D.Net updates both the knowledge base and directory database regularly to provide latest information to its users.

Evolving into the info lady

It was identified that if a bundle of services were integrated with the mobile lady then overall financial sustainability might be possible and the mobile lady will become a telecentre in herself. The modified mobile lady or the ‘Info Lady’ was thus created.

Info lady possesses the following components to provide complete livelihood information services in a cheaper and expedient way:

•  Portable laptop device like ASUS EEE or Classmate PCs
•  GPRS Modem with SIM for Internet Connectivity
•  Headphone for making messenger calls
•  Webcam (may be built in the PC) for voice call through messengers
•  Digital Camera for photography Services
•  Livelihood Local Language Content
•  Mobile Phone for commercial use

The Info lady can offer the Pallitathya Help Line (a livelihood information service) to every villager through the mobile and charge BDT 3-4 per minute. If she pays per minute charge to a mobile phone operator, the rest of the profit can easily be her income.
Here she connects with the help desk to contact the expert through Instant Messenger (IM) like Skype or Google talk (whichever works better in a particular area), for which there is no per minute charge to the mobile phone operator. The info lady can offer a flat rate for calling the Help Line, for example, BDT 10 for first five minutes which would be much cheaper for the villager.

The Info lady can also offer traditional commercial phone services; door-step photography services using a standard digital camera; and internet-based livelihood information and knowledge services making her a mobile telecentre.

Armed with portable laptop devices, she can go to the fields to talk to farmers, and converse with housewives or physically handicapped people inside houses, thus enhancing outreach dramatically and also raising her income.

The info lady can also provide voice call services to the villagers through the Internet to make calls within and outside the country, which could be a huge income source.

She can show video and animation files on various livelihood and awareness related issues at people’s homes. This can be an effective tool to raise awareness on health, education, human rights, and other issues.

Cost effective

Estimates show that an info lady’s monthly gross-profit can be within USD 75 to USD 200, depending on mobility and demand for the services, which can be offered using ASUS EEE or Classmate PC. This estimate considers all fixed costs distributed over three years on a monthly basis, and variable costs, thus resolving financial viability problems overwhelmingly.

Currently telecentres face problems of electricity availability to run desktop PCs. In contrast, the ASUS EEE or Classmate PC loaded with livelihood contents, digital camera, headphone, mobile and GPRS modem with internet connectivity can offer all telecentre services. If WiMax chip is integrated in a portable laptop device and active in a particular area, then it will be utilised more effectively.

By enabling the creation of knowledge networks in the villages of rural Bangladesh, the info lady is making high-end information available in a cheaper and effective way. The poverty of information is reversed indeed.

Muhammad Atiqur Rahman is Senior Assistant Director and Helpline Coordinator at D.Net, Bangladesh.

This article was originally published in i4d, June 2008.

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