'Info Ladies' Go Biking to Bring Remote Bangladeshi Villages Online
Recently, the Guardian published an article about an interesting business model using simple technologies appropriated for communication in Bangladesh. K4Health's Bangladesh Knowledge Management Initiative (BKMI) also uses mobile technology to connect women in villages. In contrast to the D.net project highlighted in the July 30 article, the BKMI eHealth pilot requires no upfront investment (other than the time and commitment of frontline community health workers), women and communities in Sylhet and Chittagong are embracing the use of netbooks to access eToolkits containing health, family planning and nutrition information. By training community health workers on improved interpersonal counseling and communication skills, and supporting their knowledge of basic health best practices, we too are using information to connect village women to a larger world and giving them tools to make choices for healthier lives.
As she approaches the village, Sathi rings her bicycle bell and the children come running to meet her, shouting "Hello, hello". Women emerge from their homes one by one. Sitting in the middle of a beaten-earth yard, Sathi carefully places her laptop on a plastic chair, plugs in headphones and launches a session on Skype. The faces of village men working thousands of kilometres from here appear on the screen.
"It's like my brother was standing right there, except I can't touch him. What's more he's put on weight and lost colour since he started work in Iraq," says a worried Sumita. She keeps saying "As-salamu alaykum" and "Hello", for fear he might vanish. "It's a bad connection," Sathi explains. "It's a public holiday and everyone wants to call the Gulf states, so it's busy."
A session costs a fortune, equivalent to about $3 an hour. "But the price includes technical support or volume adjustment," Sathi adds. Even at this price Skype is a great success. In Bangladesh, population 152 million, only 5 million people are connected.
So 56 "info ladies" crisscross the countryside, dressed in blue and pink uniform and carrying in their bags a laptop, a camera to make films or take wedding snaps, but also tests for blood sugar and pregnancy, and of course some cosmetics and shampoo. Thanks to their PC connected to the "new world" via a USB stick, these women can call up information beyond the reach of village schoolteachers. Internet access is an instrument of emancipation too. The women advise farmers and sometimes even offer legal advice.
Information needs these "ladies" to reach its destination, because "browsing the net is like flying a rocket to land on another planet", Sathi says. "It scares lots of people." But technology is not only for those who know how to use it; it's also for those who want to appropriate it. The women swap helpful advice and sometimes spend whole nights solving a technical hitch. The D.net non-profit organisation [PDF], which launched the scheme in 2008, trains the women for three months on how to use the hardware, at centres close to their home. To start their business they need to take out a loan: roughly $650.
They make an early start. At 6am Jeyasmin prepares a meal outside her hut, consisting mainly of rice, then takes her daughter to school. When she returns men are already waiting anxiously, eager to check their blood sugar. Ever since Jeyasmin organised a session on this subject, many of the residents think they have diabetes. "Villagers are not generally ready to purchase information, so the ladies sell them accompanying services, like medical tests or natural fertilisers," D.net head Ananya Raihan explains. A few hours later several teenage women are waiting for Jeyasmin in the shade of a date tree. She shows them a video, with white-coated experts talking and pointing to animated graphics over their heads. "Doctors never come to see us, so we might as well watch them on a PC. But it's a pity they don't answer our questions," says one of the young women. When Jeyasmin takes out her weighing machine, it draws a big crowd. They climb on to the machine, standing tall and not batting an eyelid, for fear of upsetting it.
Many of the younger women confide in the info ladies. "They understand our worries and don't make judgments," says one of them. Some teenagers even ask the women to buy them underwear, sanitary towels and makeup in town, because generally only the men go to market. The purveyors of information also have what they call their "Facebook secrets", or indeed the Skype equivalent. After creating a Facebook account, Golapi Akter met a Bangladeshi who lives in Dubai. "There are so many men who live in Facebook," she whispers. She chats with him every week on Skype and even introduced him to her parents with her webcam.
With monthly earnings of about $150 some of the women invest in other ventures. Sathi, for instance, has used her savings to turn her parents' stall into a rural supermarket, setting a whole new trend. It sells first-aid kits, USB sticks, medicine, toys, DVDs and even special kits for repairing mobiles that have dropped into the water on a paddy field. There is a small parking area outside for bicycles. The undertaking has turned out very well and the budding entrepreneur has invested in a generator, so she can show Bollywood movies, even when there's a power cut.
The info-ladies project is still a pilot scheme. It has failed in conservative areas where it is very difficult for women to have a job and where the number of migrants working overseas is too low for the Skype service to show a viable return. In the areas where the business model works, there are plans for the women to be paid to carry out market research. It has also been suggested that they should use tablet computers, which are more dust-resistant than conventional PCs. With this version new recruits would need to find $2,000 to buy into the info-lady franchise.