Sunday, August 26, 2007

Future of 'phone ladies' of Bangladesh

In a detailed article, Richard Shaffer looks at the Grameen Telecom's Village Phones and where the project stands currently.

Grameen Bank is a micro-finance institution set up by Mohammad Yunus.
Grameen Bank (38%) and Telenor of Norway (62%) together own Grameenphone, a mobile phone service provider in Bangladesh. Grameen Telecom is a company owned by Grameen Bank.

Grameen Telecom provided women (dubbed 'phone ladies') in Bangladesh villages with a mobile phone handset and a Grameenphone connection, funded by micro loans from Grameen Bank. In countries like India and Bangladesh landline penetration is low, and non-existent in rural areas. Rented mobile phones provided a great service to people and good income for the phone ladies.

But soon, the mobile revolution caught on and most of the villagers could afford to buy a handset and a connection for themselves. This has impacted the phone ladies. Richard Shaffer finds that though the program helped several people come out of poverty, it is not true anymore, certainly not true in Bangladesh.

Grameen Telecom is however not entirely abandoning the program, and is looking at setting up kiosks - Community Information Centers - which
for fees of 42 cents an hour, will offer such services as online browsing, agricultural and health-care information, digital photography, video telephony via Web cams, and electronic access to government reports and forms.
Whether these centers will be successful or not, one has to wait and see.

In India too, the roadside PCO - Public Call Office - set up by Sam Pitroda under Rajiv Gandhi government, brought telecommunication to everyone, until mobile revolution completely demolished them. Today, PCOs still exist, but they generate a very meagre income for the operators. Rapidly falling telecom rates coupled with low cost mobile handsets have spelt a doom for the PCOs. In India too, there are several attempts at setting up rural information kiosks - both government and private ventures. To this day, every implementation has been a business failure.

N-logue kiosks are floundering. The company is not profitable and it is unclear when and how they will become profitable.

Government of Tamil Nadu initiated the project called RASI (Rural Access to Services through Internet), another utter flop. Villagers were supposed to get Government services delivered through Internet kiosks, set up and operated by women, funded partly by government grant and rest via micro loans. Several women were forced to take loans, but the supposed revenues never came in.

Central Government sponsored ICT kiosk project, currently being implemented by ILFS has a long way to go, and it is unclear how this venture will also succeed and be self-sustaining.

Some of these ideas are noble, but the implementation at the ground level is sadly pathetic.

No comments: