Infolady: A Technology Twist to an Age-Old Model

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During a trip to Gaibandha last week, the mPower team had an opportunity to meet three Infoladies at an event. While door-to-door service delivery is extensively used by governments and development organizations across the developing world, very few have been able to monetize the model. The only instances where a woman (why we say it is always women, please read previous blog post here) has been able to make a living off of selling goods or services door-to-door are through sale of consumer products. Living Goods(Uganda) and Jita (Bangladesh) are two examples in which the saleswoman literally has a basket of goods that she carries around the village. It seems quite intuitive why such a model should work: a customer has the luxury of ‘shopping’ from her doorstep with the convenience of dealing with a female ‘salesperson’ while saving the cost of travelling to the market. In reality, the model faces certain inherent difficulties:

· It is physically demanding to carry around a basket of soaps, shampoos, trinkets and shoes on foot all day
· Profit margins are low because market penetration for consumer goods is fairly well developed and rapidly growing as a result of which the physical marketplace is getting closer to the consumer.
· Typical yield per transaction is small because the women are able to sell only to female consumers who have less dispensable income.
· Cannot sell to men as since they go to the marketplace everyday where the range of products is greater.

The infolady overcomes many of these challenges by taking a technology leap. The basket of goods has been replaced with a backpack of gadgets: namely a notebook, a digital camera and medical testing devices. Instead of selling consumer products, the Infolady sells internet connectivity, awareness and information. She also rides a bicycle – which not only increases her coverage dramatically but also saves her energy. The program was conceptualized by dNet with the vision of disseminating information among rural women, by rural women through a self-sustaining business model. An Infolady must purchase the entire suite of electronics from dNet – there is no charity or subsidy involved although dNet arranges for a low-interest loan for the initial investment.

The ladies we talked to were completely at ease with their laptops and medical devices, offering to test our blood sugar levels and showing us different informational content on her notebook. She played a video where an agricultural specialist demonstrates the correct way of applying pesticide on eggplant seedlings – apparently a popular one among farmers in the region. One Infolady added that she runs a pre-school at her home by playing educational videos and teaching alphabets to the poor children for a monthly fee. She also showed us the folder with the latest music; she downloads the full folder to a customer’s cell phone for Tk. 10 . “Sometimes I copy their music as well in the process, but they don’t know!” It’s remarkable to imagine that before becoming an Infolady she had never used a computer before.
The infoladies bring a service that rural consumers cannot avail anywhere else – yet. While internet access is ubiquitous through the telecom network, computers and the literacy required to browse the web for useful information are not. The customized educational content, developed by dNet is also not available publicly. As a result, profit margins are more generous than those of consumer goods. If dNet can keep developing content and services to keep the Infolady relevant, we may have found the successor to the Grameen phone lady.

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Posted by Shammi Quddus

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