Telephone Ladies Connect Bangladesh

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Commonwealth Heads of Government are meeting this weekend in Malta. One of the issues they will be discussing is how to bridge the so-called digital divide – the gap between those in the industrialised world who have access to information technology, and those in the developing world who do not.

Mobile phones are seen as key in countries with poor landline networks, but the question is how to get them into the hands of the poor. One pioneering scheme in Bangladesh has become famous for its “telephone ladies”.

Kalimajani is a typical Bangladeshi village. It is surrounded by paddy fields and the only way to get here is by walking along pathways. People live in huts made of corrugated iron. Like much of rural Bangladesh there’s no fixed line telephone service. In fact, the country has one of the world’s least developed networks. So Kalimajani was largely cut off from the world.

Until, that is, Roshinara Begum got her mobile phone.

Selling calls

She was helped to buy it by Grameen bank. It has long been a leader in micro credit, giving small loans to help the poor set up businesses. Now it is bringing technology to rural areas. Roshinara Begum sells calls. She’s become one of Bangladesh’s telephone ladies.

“Before I got the phone nobody respected me,” she said as she sat in the tin hut she uses as her office, clutching the phone that has changed her life.

“Now I’ve been given a loan from Grameen bank, even the chairman and the members of the local council know me and respect me.”

Roshinara Begum makes a good living selling calls, earning $60 to $70 a month. Recently she was able to buy her son a bicycle to ride to school. Some of Roshinara Begum’s customers use the service to keep in touch with loved ones far away. Many have to leave rural areas in search of work, going to one of Bangladesh’s big cities or further afield to countries in the Middle East.

Others, though, are farmers like Mohammed Abul Kashem. He runs a fish farm of 10 man-made ponds. He uses the phone service to order food and other supplies from the capital.

“If the phone wasn’t here then I’d have to travel to Dhaka,” he says. “It’s a very long and unpleasant journey. Now I can use the phone I am saving time and it makes my business more competitive.”


Grameen has given loans to 180,000 telephone ladies so far, and 10,000 more are being signed up each month. The key to the success of the scheme is that it is not charity – every month Grameen gets $10m in revenue.

“This is a good business, for the Grameen phone and a good business for the rural women, poor women, Grameen bank borrowers,” says Dipal Chandra Barua, the deputy managing director of Grameen bank.

“At the same time customers are also benefiting because, even though they don’t have a phone, they are getting a phone service at cost price, at a market price. So this is good – a win-win situation for the broader customer, our telephone ladies and Grameen phone also.”

Grameen is now hoping to bring the web to rural areas too. It has given loans to set up three experimental internet cafes, connected wirelessly. If successful, they will be expanded nationwide. Thanks to innovative finance, Bangladesh’s villages are joining the digital age.

Source: BBC News (link opens in a new window)