Sometimes, you have to take the mountain to Mohammed. Just ask iSocial, a groundbreaking programme that involves entrepreneurs delivering vital information and services to isolated communities throughout Bangladesh. In a gender-defying feat, the entrepreneurs are tech-savvy young women—who travel on bicycles.
The programme’s roots go back to 2004, when Dnet, a nonprofit that uses information and communication technology for economic development, set up several Rural Information Centres. Villagers had to make their way to the centres, leading organisers to wonder: Why not save them the trip? The idea for “Mobile Ladies” was born: Women with cell phones began going village to village on bicycles, disseminating information, gathering questions and giving answers.
Meanwhile, information technology was spreading throughout the world but largely bypassing Bangladesh—even today, only 38 percent of the population has internet access. So in 2008, the Mobile Ladies became Infoladies. Armed with smart phones, laptops, digital cameras and USB sticks, they give people in rural areas the opportunity to connect with the world. They also dish out advice on health and agriculture, and help villagers access government entitlements.
The Infoladies are not employees, they are entrepreneurs who receive fees in exchange for their efforts. All hail from poor backgrounds but have up to 12 years of education; they are selected for their learning ability, communications skills and entrepreneurial spirit. iSocial provides training, but the women must invest in their own equipment and run their own business.
Known as the Infolady Social Enterprise Limited, the initiative was rebranded earlier this year as iSocial, and the Infoladies became Kallyanis. As of this past spring, there were 60 Kallyanis bringing technology to 16 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. To date, they have reached some 450,000 villagers. It is impossible to say who benefits most—the Kallyanis, the villagers or society at large.
This win-win-win is movingly illustrated on the iSocial website, which includes a video relating the experience of 26-year-old Moni, who became an Infolady in 2010. Her story begins in the early morning, as family members begin to emerge from their small house onto the dirt courtyard. Moni feeds the chickens and tends to a pot cooking over an open fire; her husband, a carpenter, brushes his teeth at the water pump. The improbable sight of a solar panel on the corrugated tin roof hints at Moni’s profession: A reliable source of electricity is essential to power the equipment she uses for her work.
She finishes her chores and gets ready for her workday, wheeling out her bicycle—a mode of transportation typically reserved for men. She pedals off into the countryside, her fuschia scarf floating above her green Kallyani tunic; a white baseball cap and an umbrella further identify her to villagers as an iSocial worker. Tied to the bike rack is a black bag carrying the tools of her trade: a smart phone and other electronics as well as various medical devices.
Although it was at first difficult to win the villagers’ acceptance, they are now always delighted to see her. In a typical day, she might connect a wife to a husband or brother or son working overseas via Skype, help someone browse the internet or snap a family photo that she emails to relatives. She also carries devices that allow her to test blood pressure, measure glucose or albumin levels, and give pregnancy tests. She emails the results to medical clinics, saving villagers long trips that keep them from their work.
In this conservative society, a man would never gain this kind of access to villagers. Many women won’t discuss their health problems with their own husband, let alone another man, and many will not travel to get the services they need.
During the course of the day, Moni also holds meetings of the various groups she has formed. Each week, she has new presentations for children, teens, senior citizens, homemakers, laborers and farmers. The content for the sessions is provided by the centre, which also teaches Kallyanis how to form and lead the groups.
Moni acknowledges that her work would be impossible without the centre’s training and support. While she must purchase all her equipment—from bike to laptop to glucose monitor—she can source everything from the centre, which arranges advantageous bank loans. They also assist with another important source of revenue: commissions on product sales. Kallyanis sell items provided by the centre (seeds, folic acid, sanitary napkins, shampoo, cosmetics) to villagers, and purchase villagers’ goods for resale at the centre.
Kallyanis are typically 18 to 35 years old and can earn from $60 to $260 per month—more than the average male farmer. A proud Moni echoes entrepreneurs the world over when she said, “Everything is my investment, my labour, my qualifications, my time. So I don’t have to share my earnings with anyone. Whatever I earn, whether it is more or less, it belongs to me.”
The innovative iSocial model has won several prestigious awards, but the programme’s directors know that as society and technology continue to evolve, iSocial must evolve right along with them. They are nonetheless convinced that the concept has matured to the point where it is ready to be rolled out on a much larger scale, nationally and even internationally. For now though, the goal is to have “one Kallyani in every community in Bangladesh” by the year 2020.