A Mobile Revolution

Feature | 3 May 2010

ADB assistance to Grameen Telecom has helped provide mobility and connectivity to more than 23 million subscribers in Bangladesh - and changed their lives.

Bandarban, Bangladesh - Mobile phone operations have penetrated even the remote regions of Bangladesh to open up new business prospects for the people.

The country's mobile revolution began in 1997 with the introduction of the Village Phone program by Grameen Telecom, where ADB's private sector operations provided an initial investment of US$1.6 million in equity and US$16.7 million in loans. Grameen Telecom is one of the shareholding companies of Grameenphone and is a subsidiary of the Grameen Bank, an internationally recognized microfinance bank.

Grameenphone connects users by helping them get better information instantly, and makes them aware that information is a means of increasing returns on investment. Small traders such as Abdul Khaleq have benefited by cutting out the expense of a middleman to conduct his business.

"Before Grameenphone, I had to depend on the middlemen to sell my vegetables, and they used to cheat me like anything," Khaleq says. "I had to believe whatever rates they quoted."

But things have changed since he got himself a phone. He now discusses prices from his home and decides which market would fetch him the best price.

Remote Areas Get Access

The change was even more radical in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast part of the country. After being denied a mobile phone network for security reasons, Grameenphone rolled out its operations there in May 2008.

And now farmer Taio Mroo of Bandarban district, about 450 kilometers from the capital Dhaka, was busy making decisions about picking oranges from the orchard.

"Since we can contact the buyers directly over the mobile, we get better prices," Taio says. "We can delay the picking if prices are not good."

Mobile phone operations have opened up new business prospects for many like Punkhal Loncheo of Farukpara in Bandarban town. He has set up a cell phone call center where people who cannot afford a mobile phone come to make calls.

"I'm happy not only because it brings me money but also because my neighbors benefit," he says. Already there was a queue in his shop for mobile use in front of a Grameenphone poster.

Blazing a Trail for Women

With its deep penetration in remote areas where land phones would probably never reach, all types of new ventures are spawning with the fast spread of Grameenphone's network. Poor village women were given mobiles, which they used as pay phones. Suddenly, the villages were hooked up to the world and the tech-shy villagers got used to the technology.

Though mobiles have become cheap and widely available, the demand for Village Phone services is increasing daily, with about 58,500 new phones distributed and connected and 350,000 women using the phones commercially by the end of 2008. Grameenphone connects users by helping them get better information instantly, and makes them aware that information is a means of increasing returns on investment.

Farmers of Bogra's Shahjahanpur upazila (subdistrict) found a new way to solve their crop problems as the Rural Development Academy (RDA), a government organization, introduced its "Plant Doctor" program. RDA trained a group of local residents on plant diseases and solutions.

Each "doctor" carries a mobile. When Habibur Rahman of Poranbaria village found the leaves of his eggplants dying, he approached his neighbor for the use of his Grameenphone network. Then he called the plant doctor, Piyara Begum. After a few minutes of listening, he hung up and rang the pesticide dealer in the market. The stock was available, so he hurried off to the shop.

From her house, Piyara was still talking to another client who was unsure whether his land was good for potato growing. "I get so many phone calls a day," says Piyara, once a village housewife. "They all call me the plant doctor. It's amazing how they respect me."

Beyond respect, Piyara also benefits financially from her mobile advice. She gets 350 taka (Tk) (US$5.05) from RDA a month. And grateful farmers often send her a portion of their harvest. Sometimes, they pay her in cash in whatever amount they can afford. "I don't mind whatever they pay," Piyara says. "I am now at least earning something and my husband appreciates that. From my savings, I have started a small poultry business."

Empowering Millions

In Sariakandi upazila, ward commissioner Phuti Begum's mobile is the only way for the Kajlar char (a small riverine island) villagers to contact the outside world. She bought a Grameenphone connection more than 4 years ago mainly to keep in touch with her fellow commissioners and local government chairperson. But then Phuti found that her mobile was in huge demand among the villagers.

"Phuti Apa's mobile saves unnecessary trips to town to know if the fertilizer supply has come," says Abdul Barek, a farmer. "One trip to town means 1 day is lost and the trip fare with it, too. Now, I make sure that the supply is there and place my order. Only then do I go to town."

"There are people who talk to doctors before going to Sarikandi town or who get to talk to their husbands working abroad," 42-year-old Phuti Begum says. "Sometimes, the husbands call me from abroad and I carry the mobile to their wives."

Out of ADB's initial investment, several reinvestments have been made over the years in network facilities that now reach more than 23 million subscribers. Today, in Bangladesh's rural environs where not even 50% of the population have electricity, mobile networks have ushered in a new wireless revolution and empowered millions across the delta.