Mobile penetration in rural Bangladesh, and its possibilities

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Chikitsha’s “deep dive” to the north was my first long stay in rural Bangladesh after several years, primarily due to a study break abroad. Because of the long break in between, however, this trip showed me a lot of stark contrasts against my last visit memories that I might not otherwise have noticed. Among other things, this trip showed me how fast rural Bangladesh has embraced some new technologies, and I began wondering about all the things that these mean for the development space in the country. This post is an attempt to reflect on these possibilities.

The first thing I noticed was how widespread mobile phones were. From the rickshawpuller on unpaved village roads, to the day laborer working the land, and most remarkably, the elderly and women and adolescents – everyone had a mobile phone. Back during my last visits around 2010, it would usually be the man of the house carrying a phone, to also be used by the entire family, which meant that women did not have adequate access to the phone for meaningful empowerment. By 2013, however, each family seems to be carrying multiple phones, and even among the poorest of households, women seemed to have personal phone sets. (No wonder there are now 100 million+ registered connections in Bangladesh, with plausibly 80% of adults and a majority of adolescents carrying phones.) This spells wonders for how much can be done with delivery of services and messaging directly to targeted audiences, and is a new frontier development organizations are yet to fully explore. (Subsequent to our deep dive, we are also exploring the possibilities of direct B2C delivery of health services)

Even more fascinating was that at least 3 out of 10 rural phones seemed to be in the ‘smart’ category already. If we remember that most of the people carrying these phones have less than primary education and little to no English skills, the magnitude of this observation becomes clearer. And it is not as if they are not using the smart features! I had secondary school kids ask me to add them on facebook, and met a shop-attendant with an email address! Indeed, almost all of the internet traffic in rural areas (despite being small in volume) come from handhelds. So, imagine the possibilities once, in a couple of years’ time, all phones in rural areas become smartphones, with their multitudes of sensors and data reporting mechanisms fully geared to inform policymakers and corporations and development professionals of various aspects of the rural lifestyle and environment. This would allow for targeted and data-driven marketing, communications and interventions in a scale never before imagined. BIG data, I bet your next frontier is in rural markets!

Mobile payment was a relatively new concept globally around 2010, but this time, I saw it mature and fully rooted in the rural community. Almost everyone had a BKash account, and its plethora of uses was even more mind-numbing than its penetration. People are receiving remittances from the city on their accounts, sending payments to each other and paying for goods, saving up on their phones, and even making personal loans through mobile transfers! As one person told me eloquently – “In the past, I would wait days for my remittances and worry for its safety. Now, even while my brother is sending me money, I go about my daily chores, and during the next trip to the Bazaar, simply draw from my account and return with groceries.”

This, too, creates a platform on which numerous services could be anchored. One of the things that are yet to be fully developed in Bangladesh are BOP businesses. Oftentimes, the simplicity of payments and accounting in such dispersed and informal markets remains the binding constraint. With a platform like BKash, the transaction costs involved in collect and monitor payments becomes much more manageable for folks to imagine and build services and products targeted at the rural poor. This could therefore be a catalyst for innovative BOP businesses and social enterprises in the years to come.

I could also talk about solar panels and electric transportation in rural Bangladesh, but that’s another story. For now, let’s marvel at mobile’s success in penetrating rural markets in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and daydream of the plethora of possibilities which are sure to materialize in the years to come.
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Posted by Rubayat Khan

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